‘Alarming level’ of boat people

Thai foreign minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn speaks at a meeting on the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis (AP)

Published: Friday 29th May 2015 by Caroline Stephenson

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The upsurge of boat people in South-east Asia has reached an “alarming level”, Thailand’s foreign minister said today.

Thanasak Patimaprakorn called on governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis – a reference to the swelling number of refugees who have fled persecution in Burma.

He was s peaking at the opening of a regional meeting in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue.

Asian nations have been struggling in the face of growing waves of desperate migrants who are landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in growing numbers.

In the last few weeks alone, at least 3,000 people have washed ashore or been rescued by fishermen.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad.

But many are minority Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in predominantly Buddhist Burma, which has denied them basic rights, confined more than 100,000 to camps, and denies them citizenship. There are more than 1 million Rohingya living in Burma.

“The influx of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an alarming level,” Mr Thanasak said.

But “while we are trying to help those in need, we must stop the outflow of irregular migrants and combat transnational crime and destroy their networks”.

He added: “The root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed.”

Today’s meeting includes representatives from 17 countries directly and indirectly affected by crisis, as well as others such as the US and Japan.

Officials from international organisations such as the UN refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) also attended.

Rohingya have fled Burma for years, and South-east Asia has quietly ignored the issue. The problem has attracted international attention amid increased media scrutiny in recent months.

Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking last month, prompting smugglers to abandon their boats, leaving what aid groups estimated were thousands of migrants stranded at sea.

Survivors, including women and children, came ashore with first-hand accounts of beatings, ransom kidnappings by traffickers and near-starvation.

The director-general of the IOM, William Lacy Swing, said on the eve of the meeting that one important result was already achieved in getting the countries to agree to talk.

Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the people still stranded at sea, and to put pressure on Burma to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.

Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to provide the migrants with one-year shelter. Indonesia says Rohingya can stay for a year while Bangladeshis will be repatriated.

It is unclear what happens after a year, and both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement options.

Thailand has offered humanitarian help but not shelter. More than 100,000 refugees, mostly from Burma’s other ethnic groups, have been living in border camps for decades, and Thailand says it cannot afford any more.

Published: Friday 29th May 2015 by Caroline Stephenson

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