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Southeast Asian nations brace for refugee influx

Malaysia and Thailand are planning to set up shelters for hundreds of Rohingya refugees arriving on their shores. Some 7,000 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh are still adrift at sea, according to a monitoring group.

A crackdown on human traffickers by Thai authorities has caused a surge of refugees towards Malaysia and Indonesia from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

At the weekend, three boats carrying more than 1,000 people landed on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, near Thailand.

There are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people being held in ships in international waters, according to the monitoring organization Arakan Project, as crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented smugglers from bringing people ashore.

"This is the first time there is such a big influx of people coming into the country. We were told that it was the result of borders set up by the Thai authorities, so we need to find that out as well, whether Malaysia was their final destination," Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Malaysia's deputy interior minster, told the Reuters news agency.

"We have room at the detention center now, but if it is insufficient, the ministry has the power to declare a new detention center," Jaafar added.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered an action against human traffickers last week after the discovery of several mass graves, believed to be of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim community living in Myanmar and Bangladesh, near the Malaysian border.

On Sunday, a group of about 600 people arrived in the Indonesian province of Aceh on four boats. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), they were rescued after their boat was found drifting at sea.

"The captain jumped into a speedboat tied to the ship and fled," said IOM's Indonesia head Mark Getchell, adding that "luckily, the passengers were able to steer the ship toward the beach."

Stateless and persecuted

Myanmar's Rohingyas live predominantly in the western state of Rakhine. They are not officially recognized by the government as an ethnic minority group, and for decades they have been subjected to discrimination and violence by the Buddhist majority.

Viewed by the United Nations and the US as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh flee their countries every year in a desperate attempt to reach Malaysia and Indonesia.

The UN refugee agency estimated that 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants boarded smugglers' boats in the first three months of 2015, double the amount for the same time period in 2014.

shs/msh (Reuters, dpa)

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