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Rohingya Refugees From Myanmar Adrift In Indian Ocean

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Human rights groups say more than 90 Muslim-minority Rohingya who fled Myanmar are now adrift in the Indian Ocean. The boat trafficking them has broken down. They've got little food or water on board, and it seems like there's little interest in saving them. Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Human rights groups say the Rohingya embarked on their journey from refugee camps in southern Bangladesh two weeks ago.

CATHERINE STUBBERFIELD: There are a number of refugees reportedly ill. We're aware that eight have passed away already on the journey. And as of today, they still have no safe harbor in which to disembark.

SULLIVAN: Catherine Stubberfield is the spokesperson for the UNHCR Regional Office in Bangkok. John Quinley is with the group Fortify Rights.

JOHN QUINLEY: Every day that goes by could mean more loss of life on the boat. And so we believe that governments in the region should urgently conduct search and rescue operations to be able to locate the boat and allow them to disembark and provide protection for these refugees.

SULLIVAN: But some human rights groups aren't optimistic.

PHIL ROBERTSON: Quite clearly, neither Thailand nor Malaysia wants the Rohingya boats coming anywhere near their shores. They don't want the Rohingya. They don't want to find the Rohingya. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the general attitude of both the Malaysian and Thai governments when it comes to Rohingya boats.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. He says both countries have, in recent years, helped people on the boats with food and water. But now...

ROBERTSON: You know, it sounds a lot like the policy that goes back to 2008, which was a straightforward pushback policy where the Thai navy was caught, basically, carrying people out to sea, towing them for hours and hours and then cutting them loose to float away and die.

SULLIVAN: Malaysia and Thailand deny this. But John Quinley of Fortify Rights notes there's been no official statement from either government. It took calls from human rights groups to help the Rohingya on the boat. And he notes Malaysia's decision on Tuesday to deport more than a thousand refugees from Myanmar, some of whom may be Rohingya.

QUINLEY: The situation in Myanmar right now is a military coup. The country is being run by generals that have committed atrocity crimes for many years. And so, of course, Myanmar nationals that are being sent back are at risk.

SULLIVAN: Opposition lawmakers in Malaysia's parliament have called for an investigation into the government's decision.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "5/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.