SITTWE, Myanmar – Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions Thursday, May 21 for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea, as Myanmar hosted talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores.
The rescue order, which is the first proactive official move to save the thousands of persecuted Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshi economic migrants believed currently to be adrift, comes a day after Malaysia and Indonesia said they would end a policy of turning away boats.
“We have to prevent loss of life,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on his Facebook account, announcing the measure.
Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told Agence France-Presse (AFP) his country had not made a similar order but the issue was “something that will be discussed”.
As the migrant crisis has unfolded in the past few days, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have been heavily criticised for refusing to take in boats overloaded with exhausted passengers fleeing poverty or persecution.
But on Wednesday, May 20, Malaysia and Indonesia relented, announcing their nations would accept boatpeople for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.
Thailand has declined to take in boatpeople but vowed not to push them away, and on Thursday Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha lashed out at critics of that stance by saying detractors could “migrate” to sea themselves, or take migrants into their own homes.
The Thai leader said his country was already home to more than 900,000 refugees from decades of regional turmoil.
Malaysia and Indonesia’s policy about-turn was welcomed by the United States, which said it also stood ready to admit some of the migrants, as well as the Red Cross.
Malaysia and Indonesia’s foreign ministers met Myanmar officials in Naypyidaw for talks late Thursday, where the fate of the Rohingya people remains an incendiary issue.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said in a statement Myanmar had agreed to “strengthen measures to prevent the irregular movement of migrants” from its territory and would also send officials from their embassy in Jakarta to visit boatpeople who had recently landed in the Aceh region.
There was no comment from the Myanmar side on the outcome of talks. (READ: ‘Humanitarian’ help ready for boatpeople – Myanmar)
‘I don’t want to go’
US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also due to raise the plight of the Rohingya in his meeting Thursday with Myanmar officials, including President Thein Sein, in Naypyidaw.
Members of the Muslim minority flee in droves from Myanmar each year, in an exodus that has surged following sectarian violence in 2012 pitting them against local Buddhists in the western state of Rakhine.
News of the diplomatic breakthrough from Indonesia and Malaysia was yet to trickle down to the displaced Rohingya lodged in ramshackle camps around the Myanmar state capital of Sittwe on Thursday.
Some Rohingya communities were raising funds to pay off the smugglers and buy back their loved ones stranded on boats at sea awaiting transit south.
“There were 300 people on our boat… we were in real difficulty, they beat the children… they didn’t give us food,” Malar Myaing, a 25-year-old mother of 5 told AFP from the Anuak San Pya camp in Sittwe after securing her family’s release with a $100 payment.
“Thirty-five people came back to Sittwe, there are many people left at sea.”
Tearful mothers holding photographs pleaded for help locating children who had not made contact since they left on boats weeks ago, an AFP reporter at the camp said.
Myanmar’s government refuses to recognise the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group and insists they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
But Myanmar has confirmed it will attend a broader regional summit planned on the crisis in Bangkok on May 29, after the government this week softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.
The country also said it had began its own search and rescue operations a week ago, even before the UN expressed fears for the safety of some 2,000 people believed to be stranded on boats in its waters.
Pressure is building for greater action, however, with EU lawmakers passing a resolution Thursday saying Myanmar “must change policy and end the persecution and discrimination” of its Rohingya.
Thousands still adrift
Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coastlines of the 3 countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.
Some traffickers are believed to have abandoned their human cargo at sea with scant food or water.
Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman said his intelligence services estimated that about 7,000 people were still adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
The United States, Philippines and even the west African nation of Gambia have offered assistance or possible resettlement of Rohingya, evoking memories of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of boatpeople from Vietnam in the late 1970s.
Hours before Malaysia and Indonesia changed tack, more than 400 starving migrants were rescued from their decrepit boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels Wednesday. – Kelly Macnamara, AFP/Rappler.com