Bangkok: For generations, the ethnic Muslim Rohingyas have endured persecution by the ruling junta of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country.

The plight of the Rohingyas, descendants of Arab traders from the 7th century, gained international attention over the past month after five boatloads of haggard migrants were found in the waters around Indonesia and the Andaman Islands.

But unlike the Kurds or the Palestinians, no one has championed their cause. Most countries see them as little more than a source of cheap labour for the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.

"The Rohingyas are probably the most friendless people in the world. They just have no one advocating for them at all," said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Hardly any of them have legal status anywhere in the world."

There are an estimated 750,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar's mountainous northern state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh. Thousands flee every year, trying to escape a life of abuse that was codified in 1982 with a law that virtually bars them from becoming citizens.

A spokesman for Myanmar's military government did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment. It has repeatedly denied abusing the Rohingya, though Amnesty International said the junta has described them as less than human. Rights groups have documented widespread abuses, including forced labour, land seizures and rape.

"We have no rights," said Mohammad Shafirullah, who was among 200 migrants rescued by the Indonesian navy last week. He recalled how he was jailed in Myanmar, his family's land stolen and a cousin dragged into the jungle and shot dead. "They rape and kill our women. We can't practise our religion. We aren't allowed to travel from village to village ... It's almost impossible, even, to get married or go to school."

Twice since the 1970s, waves of attacks by the military and Buddhist villagers forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee over the border to Bangladesh.