500 refugees found off of Philippines’ coast

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A boat carrying 200 migrants found by the Philippine Navy on a known migrant smuggling route has made the latest in a long series of worrying discoveries by the military.

The navy vessel spotted the freighter in a flotilla of smugglers’ speedboats last week, according to the military. Authorities boarded the ship and found around 200 Central and South American migrants, who claimed to be Syrians and Iraqis, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said in a statement.

The boat was found about 60 nautical miles off the coast of the northwestern Philippines, Padilla said. The location is on the Sibuyan Islands, just west of Palawan province.

The migrants have no identification, but officials were able to identify them by putting some of them in identification cards, such as identity cards for refugees.

It’s unclear how many were children and how many had been abused, Padilla said.

Padilla added that the boat was transported to Paranaque City, about 65 miles from its location, after the navy seized it.

He said the ship was traveling at about 25 knots and carrying its entire cargo of migrants.

What may be migrant smugglers’ hidden cargo There are a number of ways a ship can turn into a smuggling vessel, all of which are aimed at making the trip particularly costly and dangerous for the migrants. In 2016, just under 3,000 people were caught smuggling humans by sea, which according to a Reuters investigation is almost twice the amount involved five years earlier. Another option involves a boat stacked with smuggled passengers. But boatloads of people on land can do the same thing.

Last week, the Philippine military discovered a small, wooden fishing boat packed with migrants in nearby Sibuyan Islands. During that raid, local fishermen said they often caught migrants from Sibuyan hiding on their boats and supplying fuel, Padilla said.

The Indian government had warned the Philippines of a wave of illegal sea arrivals earlier this year, in which roughly 1,000 Sri Lankans were found off southern Tamil Nadu in June and arrested at sea.

Earlier this year, Sri Lankan officials said they had started a screening system to count those on the country’s coasts searching for work. An additional 300,000 Sri Lankans had entered the country as recently as 2016, according to government estimates.

There are no specific national statistics for South Asian illegal migrants. But an estimated 10,000 or more, including 12,000 Sri Lankans, settled in the Philippines in the past two years, with most arriving after paying the cost of smuggling. A number of immigration officials in the Philippines and Sri Lanka have said the most common way to migrate is by purchasing tickets on smugglers’ boats.

“These organizations are organized. They have contracts with migrant smuggling agents and information,” Padilla said at the time.

“They move the migrants from the coast of Sri Lanka to the high seas, and it is very difficult to stop. It is very fast and easy, and they have the money and the knowledge and the training, so the authorities have to act very carefully.”

Padilla added that authorities have strengthened controls in the southern Philippines, and that the area is “one of the world’s most vulnerable, for territorial defense.”

“Migrants fleeing by sea to other countries of the region or the world may be forced to end up in the Southern Philippines without their identity documents.”

The matter has been referred to the Philippine Senate and local prosecutors, Padilla said. He added that immigration authorities would handle the asylum applications of the migrants.

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