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Thousands Of Rohingya Migrants Stranded At Sea After Fleeing Myanmar


Thomas Fuller saw Southeast Asia's migration crisis up-close yesterday. The New York Times correspondent and other journalists were on the Andaman Sea off Thailand and approached a wooden fishing boat. Hundreds of people from Myanmar were on it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How long have you been on the boat? One week? Two weeks? Three weeks? Four weeks? Five weeks? On the boat - how long?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How many days? How many months?

CORNISH: The migrants aboard were crying out for water and for help. It's estimated that up to 20,000 migrants are currently at sea trying to get away from ethnic persecution or poverty. Thomas Fuller joins us now from Bangkok.

And welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So help us understand this scene. We heard sound of people wailing. What did this boat look like as you got closer?

FULLER: Well, it was fairly rickety - wooden fishing boat. It was three stories tall and on the deck of the boat, we could see about 160 men, women and children, and a lot of women and children squatting on the deck and trying to find shade from, you know, what was a very hot sun. And when we pulled up, the women, children started just wailing and, you know, pointing to their stomachs and saying they were very hungry and very thirsty. It was a very, very desperate scene.

CORNISH: What was that like for you? I mean, you didn't have anything to give them.

FULLER: Well, we had some water and we threw water bottles onto the boat. But what we mainly had was the fact that we had located the boat. They been at sea for two-and-a-half months and for the first time, you know, we managed through cell phone records to locate the boat. They had a phone on board and we were able to tell them that, you know, we had contacted the Thai Navy and that they were on the way with supplies.

CORNISH: What did they tell you about where they were actually trying to go and why?

FULLER: They were very clear about that. There was a young man, actually an adolescent, on the boat that - he said he was 15 years old - that I spoke to. And he said, I have a brother in Malaysia - that's where I want to go. You know, these are people who live in a country that has basically rejected them. And Malaysia, which is, you know, a middle-income country and is a Muslim majority country - and of course the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, is a place that has been a haven for them. A very unofficial haven, but unofficially tens and tens of thousands of Rohingya have made it there, and so a lot of these migrants - would-be migrants - have family there.

CORNISH: You mentioned the Rohingya being a Muslim minority, not recognized as citizens of Myanmar. But over the last few weeks, this exodus of tens of thousands of people, people are talking about it as a surprise. Can you talk about how that's possible?

FULLER: Well, I think what is a surprise is the surge. And what has exacerbated the situation in a sense is the Thai crackdown on these trafficking networks, on the smuggling networks. So they're stuck at sea. The boat that I saw yesterday is still out there trying to, you know, find a way to get to land. And the Malaysians have pushed them back once and they vow to do it again.

CORNISH: Can you help us understand some of the geopolitics here? Is there a sense that all of these countries are rejecting these migrants because once you embrace them they're yours in a sense, right - according to international law?

FULLER: Yeah, I mean, I think the comparison here is probably with the European Union. I mean, you know, the European Union has a lot of ways to meet and to discuss. They have, you know, a similar crisis. In Southeast Asia, you don't have that at all. You have countries that are barely communicating with each other. Today we learned that a meeting called by the Thais for later this month is not going to be attended by Myanmar. The Myanmar government said they're not going to attend because they have nothing to say on this issue. They blame it on the Thais.

CORNISH: Thomas Fuller of The New York Times, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FULLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.