A boat packed with 74 Rohingya, including women and children, was intercepted off the Thai holiday island of Phuket yesterday, raising fears they are part of an exodus of Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar.
Previously, only men and boys usually made the risky journey to their preferred destination, Malaysia.
But the Rohingya have been subjected to a brutal campaign of ethnic violence over the past seven months in Rakhine state, with organisations connected with them expecting thousands to make the voyage this "sailing season" between October and April.
Members of the Royal Thai Navy and Thai police yesterday helped the group replenish their fuel and supplies off Rawai, a popular setting off point for tourist sightseeing trips to neighbouring islands. Under Thailand's "help on" policy, the group was prevented from landing, but was given assistance to continue their journey.
The children chewed on snacks and some of the men enjoyed cigarettes.
One of the men, Mohamad, 45, said: "We were heading south with a much larger boat but we ran out of fuel so we had to stop here."
The larger boat is believed to be the vessel that arrived off the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi on Sunday, and forced 500 passengers to swim to shore.
That incident follows a situation last month when a Vietnamese boat carrying 40 Rohingya who were plucked from a sinking vessel was refused permission to dock in Singapore. The group was later taken in by Malaysia.
One of those crammed into yesterday's boat load, Mohamad, said 10 were children under the age of 10. There were children as young as three.Mohamad said they had been sailing for 13 days, after departing from Maungtaw. Each passenger paid a people smuggler 400,000 kyat (HK$3,550) for the journey.
Chris Lewa, director of the activist group Arakan Project, which has compiled data on the recent departures, estimated at least 1,700 people left in October, 3,800 in November and 5,000 in December.
"There could be many more leaving from further south, around Sittwe," she said.