Thousands of desperate migrants turned back to sea by Thailand and Malaysia

Hundreds of migrants on a boat drifting off the Thai coast Credit: REUTERS

Thousands of stateless migrants have been left to drift in south-east Asian seas after Thai authorities turned a boat away from port, and Malaysia confirmed it would do the same.

The crisis has erupted following a crackdown on people trafficking in Thailand, which has seen smugglers abandon ships full of Rohingya Muslims, many of them sick or hungry.

Thailand refused permission for a boat carrying 300 migrants, including women and children, to land after it was found drifting in its waters.

"We declined them entry to the country but we gave them foodand water to adhere to our human rights obligations," said regionalpolice official Major General Puttichat Akhachan.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has warned that the situation could develop into a "massive humanitarian disaster" and has said governments should rescue the boatpeople rather than send them on their way.

Fishermen (R) give supplies to migrants on the drifting boat Credit: Reuters

The Rohingya are described as one of the most deprived ethnic minorities in the world, and live mostly in Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh. Thailand is a common destination for Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in their homelands.