Thailand blocks refugee rescue mission

Christopher Catrambone. Source: Wikimedia

A privately funded boat that sailed to Thailand to save drowning migrants in the Andaman Sea has abandoned its mission after its crew said the Thai authorities prevented the transfer of key equipment from reaching the vessel.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, run by US entrepreneur Christopher Catrambone and his wife Regina, has rescued almost 13,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and moved one ship, the MY Phoenix, to the Andaman Sea.

The boat had been due to launch two drones to search large areas of the Indian Ocean to assess trafficking and save lives. The 40-metre Phoenix would then rescue those fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh and bring them to shore in Thailand.

Amnesty International said hundreds if not thousands died in the Andaman Sea in 2015. Myanmar does not recognise its 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya population, creating a stateless people. In 2012 violence with Buddhists in Rakhine State caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. Most remain in filthy refugee camps.

Independently this week, US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said Myanmar needed to act to protect freedom of religion and end discrimination against minorities.

“One such step is Burma’s government radically changing its abusive policies and practices in Rakhine state, which have harmed members of the ethnic communities who live there, especially Rohingya Muslims,” it reported.

Catrambone told Britain’s Guardian newspaper from the Phoenix: “We cleared it with the ministry of defence, the Royal Thai Navy, the transportation ministry and the prime minister’s office.”

But when the two drones were due to transfer through Thailand to the Phoenix, customs officers blocked them for weeks despite guarantees, he said.

“Every single aspect of the process was disrupted,” he said.

The mission was due to start operations last month to help save Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees from western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during the dry season when traffickers use the calmer waters to reach Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

The rains and rougher seas normally start in May, meaning the mission had been abandoned for this year, Catrambone told the Guardian.

“We couldn’t wait any more for the drones. It’s a matter of the monsoon season starting. We would be wasting our time. We did not expect the Thais to have any authority to restrict [the drones],” he said. The equipment would only transit through Thailand to a Belize-registered ship, he added.

Catrambone said his team, particularly his Thai partners who were supposed to be transferring the drones, had been put under surveillance by Thailand’s military government.

“We tried to go along as best we could until all our people were scared away,” Catrambone added.

The Thai authorities declined to comment.

The drones were due to stream live footage of the search area online, Catrambone said.

“When you’re conducting an operation at sea you have visibility of two nautical miles. A drone can cover 300 square miles around your ship. We’ve proven that model works in the [Mediterranean]. You definitely need air assets to operate at sea.”

The Phoenix is trying to complete limited operations in the Andaman Sea but she was being followed by Thai naval vessels, Catrambone said. They conducted aggressive manoeuvres close to his ship, he claimed.

“We have the Thai navy shadowing us. We had them come across our bow. It’s like being cut off on the road,” he said.