Three Southeast Asia nations to meet amid migrant boat crisis

by Reuters
Monday, 18 May 2015 09:20 GMT

A girl from a group Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, who arrived in Indonesia by boat this week, receives a bottle of water from a local resident after arriving at a new shelter in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 13, 2015. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 (Reuters) - Malaysia said on Monday that its foreign minister would meet his Thai and Indonesian counterparts in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to discuss ways to tackle human trafficking, after thousands of desperate asylum seekers arrived on its shores in the past week.

Southeast Asian governments have so far shown little sign of a coordinated response to the boatloads of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar arriving in their waters.

Some 2,500 migrants have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia over the past week, while around 5,000 remain stranded at sea in rickety boats with dwindling supplies of food and water.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have turned back or towed overcrowded migrant boats away from their coastlines, in what the International Organization for Migration has described as "maritime ping-pong with human lives".

A meeting of Malaysian and Indonesian foreign ministers scheduled for Monday was put back until Wednesday to allow the Thai foreign minister to attend, a Malaysian foreign ministry official said.

Talks would focus on human trafficking and people smuggling in the region, the ministry said in a statement.

"Malaysia will continue to seek a solution on this issue through ... concerted and coordinated efforts among the countries of origin, transit and destination," the statement added.

Thai and Indonesian foreign ministry officials did not immediately comment on what they expected to get out of the meeting.

An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period of 2014, the United Nations' refugee agency has said.

A clampdown by Thailand's military junta has made a well-trodden overland trafficking route into Malaysia - one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest economies - too risky for criminals who prey on Rohingya fleeing oppression in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and on Bangladeshis looking for better livelihoods abroad.


Malaysia, which says it has already taken in 120,000 illegal migrants from Myanmar, has made it clear that it wants no more and would push back migrant boats.

However, as current chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, the country is leading diplomatic efforts on the regional crisis.

"If necessary, we will call for an emergency (ASEAN) meeting," Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said a meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart on Sunday.

"As ASEAN chairman, Malaysia will discuss the issue in depth, and hope Myanmar can sit together to find a solution before it is brought to the international level," he added.

The United Nations said last week that the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ended discrimination.

Thailand said last week that it would also host talks in Bangkok on May 29 for 15 countries to discuss the emergency. The recent Thai crackdown came after the United States last year downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to its list of the worst centres of human trafficking.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday that the UN should talk to the "source country" about solving the problem, without naming Myanmar.

"I hope the meeting on May 29 will offer practical solutions and action that can be applied to the source, transit and destination," Prayuth said.

Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012. (Reporting by Praveen Menon; Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak in BANGKOK; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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