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Malaysia orders migrants sea search

Published 21/05/2015

Migrants wait to be rescued as Indonesia and Malaysia offered to provide temporary shelter to thousands. (AP)
Migrants wait to be rescued as Indonesia and Malaysia offered to provide temporary shelter to thousands. (AP)

Malaysia's prime minister has said he has ordered the navy and the coast guard to comb the sea to look for stranded migrants, the first country to announce it will search for the refugees instead of waiting for them to wash up on Southeast Asia's shores.

In a positive sign, Burma - the country which many of the refugees, ethnic Rohingya, are fleeing - said it will attend a regional meeting in Bangkok next Friday, creating a chance for the nations most affected by the crisis to discuss long-term solutions.

Earlier, it hinted it would skip the meeting, which will bring together more than a dozen governments from the region and beyond.

The decision came as Malaysia's foreign minister was scheduled to visit Burma. The ministry issued a delicately worded statement saying the two would "exchange views on irregular movements of people ... in Southeast Asia", using politically correct language so as not to offend Burma - which refuses to shoulder any blame for the crisis or discuss the matter if the word Rohingya is mentioned.

In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 people - Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty - have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

After initially pushing many boats back, Malaysia and Indonesia announced yesterday that they will offer temporary shelter to all incoming migrants.

Although the announcement was seen as a major breakthrough, rights groups said the proposal addressed only part of the problem, and urged countries to start actively searching for those stranded at sea. The UN refugee agency believes there are 4,000 still at sea, although some activists put the number at 6,000.

Prime Minister Najib Razak addressed the concern via Twitter, saying that he had ordered the navy and coast guard "to conduct search and rescue efforts (for) Rohingya boats. We have to prevent loss of life".

Aid groups estimate that thousands are adrift on vessels without food and water, following a crackdown on human traffickers that prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.

The UN says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Burma nor Bangladesh recognises them as citizens. In Buddhist-majority Burma, even the name Rohingya is taboo. Burmese officials refer to the group as "Bengalis" and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.

Over the past few years, Burma's Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.

While Indonesia and Malaysia said yesterday they would temporarily take in some refugees, they also appealed for international help, saying the crisis is a global, not a regional, problem.

"This is not an Asean problem," Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman said, referring to the 10-nation grouping of Southeast Asian countries. "This is a problem for the international community."

Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla said his government was ready to shelter Rohingya for one year, while the Bangladeshis would be sent back home. "A year is (the) maximum," he said. "But there should be international cooperation." Malaysia has also set a one-year time limit.

So far there have been two offers from the international community.

In Washington, the State Department said the United States was also willing to take in Rohingya refugees as part of international efforts to cope with the crisis.

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the US is prepared to take a leading role in any multicountry effort, organised by the United Nations refugee agency, to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.

The tiny African country of Gambia has also said it was willing to take in Rohingya refugees. "As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is (our) sacred duty to help," the presidency said in a statement.

The number two US diplomat, currently visiting Southeast Asia, said he will raise the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya when he meets senior Burma government leaders today.

"The only sustainable solution to the problem is changing the conditions that let them put their lives at risk at the first place," deputy secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Jakarta.

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