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A year on, Asia's boat people trapped in desperate limbo

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One year after struggling ashore during Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis, Sonamia and hundreds of other desperate Rohingya migrants remain in limbo, forgotten footnotes as record numbers worldwide flee violence and persecution.

[BAYEUN, Indonesia] One year after struggling ashore during Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis, Sonamia and hundreds of other desperate Rohingya migrants remain in limbo, forgotten footnotes as record numbers worldwide flee violence and persecution.

Sonamia was among about 400 starving people plucked to safety off Indonesia from an overloaded green boat that became emblematic of the crisis, its emaciated passengers pleading for help as countries in the region rejected them in an impasse that triggered global outrage.

Under pressure, Indonesia and Malaysia eventually allowed Rohingya boat people to land, pending resettlement within a year.

But none have been resettled, hundreds are stuck in camps and detention centres, and some have once again risked their lives by taking to the high seas at the hands of people-smugglers.

"I have learned to wait," Sonamia, who goes by one name, told AFP at a temporary shelter in Bayeun village in Indonesia's Aceh province.

The 42-year-old is still tormented by nightmares of what was termed an appalling game of human "ping-pong", with boats bouncing between unwelcoming countries as food and water ran out.

"I feel upset every time I recall that, because it felt like we were not human," he said.

About 1,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has fled persecution in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, were welcomed ashore in staunchly Islamic Aceh, but only around 300 remain.

The rest are believed to have quietly sailed for Muslim-majority Malaysia - attractive because of its relative affluence - where they face uncertainty as illegal immigrants.

In Malaysia, 371 Rohingya who were allowed in amid the crisis remain shut away in an immigration centre, government officials say.

The United States has agreed to take 52, but resettlement prospects for the rest remain bleak, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says.

Several hundred Bangladeshis were also among the boat people but most have been labelled economic migrants and are in various stages of being sent home.

Last year's crisis began when Thailand discovered mass graves in a human-trafficking camp along its southern border and launched a crackdown on the brutal networks that ferry migrants to Malaysia.

The traffickers subsequently abandoned boatloads of migrants at sea, leaving several thousand to be rescued or swim ashore.

Indonesia and Malaysia have not signed the UN refugee convention, complicating the already difficult resettlement process.

The UNHCR says the process has become further paralysed as Europe's own migrant crisis overwhelms countries that might normally accept refugees.

"When you see the number of Syrians and others arriving by boat in Europe, and the crisis that the European countries are facing there, resettlement out of this region has to be seen in that context - and it's very, very difficult now," Thomas Vargas, the UNHCR's representative in Indonesia, told AFP.

UNHCR officials - who complain they were not consulted beforehand on the one-year resettlement deadline - say that timeframe was unrealistic, especially given the long refugee queues.

Malaysia already has about 158,000 registered asylum-seekers, including 55,000 Rohingya, though most are believed to be content to earn money working illegally rather than be resettled.

Indonesia has more than 7,000 registered asylum-seekers.

The Rohingya still stuck in Aceh a year later are trying to get on with their lives at temporary shelters built across the province by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), subsisting largely on donated food and supplies.

Some have married, babies have been born, and others have planted vegetable gardens or are training as auto mechanics or learning sewing. But they cannot work legally, making a normal existence impossible.

"Here we only eat, sleep and pray," said Abdul Rasyid, 25, one of a handful of "green boat" survivors still in Aceh.

"We are not allowed to work here although I need money to send to my family in Myanmar."

Traffickers have in recent years taken tens of thousands of desperate Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants - many of whom pay for passage with their life savings - on the dangerous sea voyage to jungle camps along the Thai-Malaysian border.

Many perish en route, and harrowing stories of abuse and exploitation by traffickers are common, including demands that relatives back home pay ransoms before their migrant kin are allowed to move on to Malaysia.

But since the crisis, migrant numbers have dropped sharply, said UNHCR Malaysia representative Richard Towle.

Rohingya migrants and activists say possible reasons include the crackdown, global exposure of the journey's dangers, and hopes among Rohingya that the recent end of military rule could bring a favourable Myanmar government policy change toward them.

Last week, however, 14 Rohingya migrants were found abandoned by people-smugglers in a southern Thai forest after entering via a new route.

"The smugglers and traffickers are enormously adaptable," Mr Towle said, warning that governments must remain vigilant.

AFP