He has called for regional governments to address the root causes of the crisis – a reference to the swelling number of refugees who have fled persecution in Burma.
The surge of migrants in south-east Asia has reached an “alarming level”, said Thailand’s foreign affairs minister on Friday, as Burma said its navy had seized a vessel off its coast with more than 700 migrants aboard.
Speaking at the opening of a regional meeting in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Thanasak Patimaprakorn said, “No country can solve this problem alone.”
Asian nations have been struggling with the growing waves of desperate migrants who are landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. In the past few weeks, at least 3,000 people have washed ashore or been rescued by fishermen and several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after people smugglers abandoned boats after a regional crackdown.
Some are Bangladeshis hoping to 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 one million Rohingya living in Burma.
Burma said its navy seized a boat packed with 727 people off the country’s southern coast on Friday, about a week after it found a similar boat it said carried around 200 Bangladeshi migrants. The nationality of the people on the boat was unclear.
“The influx of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an alarming level,” 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.
“The root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed.”
Anne Richard, the US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said, “We strongly believe we have to save lives urgently. We have to develop better ways of discussing and meeting on these issues and taking action when people are setting to sea in boats.”
Friday’s meeting included representatives from 17 countries directly and indirectly affected by crisis, as well as others such as the US and Japan, and officials from international organisations such as the UN refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Rohingya have fled Burma and 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. He said there needed to be some kind of a follow-on mechanism to make regional governments continue to work closely.
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.
Swing said a long-term, comprehensive policy had to be put together, and that no single element by itself was going to solve the problem. But he said Burma was a key. “I think Myanmar has to be engaged in any solution involving any of the groups, absolutely,” he said.
Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to provide the migrants shelter for one year. Indonesia says Rohingya can stay for a year but 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.
The US has flown five surveillance flights in the region so far, trying to find migrants at sea. But a Pentagon spokeswoman, Henrietta Levin, said only one possible vessel carrying migrants had been spotted so far – a boat with about 11 people visible on deck on Monday. It was not immediately clear what happened to the boat.
US navy flights are operating daily out of Subang, Malaysia, and Richards said the US had asked Thailand to allow its aircraft to fly out of there, but “we have yet to get the approval we seek”.