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Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to meet on boatpeople crisis


Shipwrecked migrants disembark from a rescue vessel as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015.. PHOTO: GIOVANNI ISOLINO / AFP

Malaysia’s foreign minister was to host his Indonesian and Thai counterparts on Wednesday for urgent talks on Southeast Asia’s boatpeople crisis, with pressure mounting on them to help thousands of starving migrants.

The three nations have sparked outrage by turning away vessels overloaded with migrants from Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya minority and with poor Bangladeshis.

Nearly 3,000 such migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past week after a Thai crackdown prompted some people-traffickers to abandon their human cargo at sea.

The three-way meeting comes as Myanmar — a fellow member of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — also has come under global criticism for its poor treatment of the Muslim Rohingya, which is blamed for helping to fuel the mass migration.

Malaysia’s Anifah Aman, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, and their Thai counterpart Tanasak Patimapragorn will meet starting at 9 am (0100 GMT) near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s government said.

The UN’s refugee agency told AFP on Tuesday it had received reports that at least 2,000 migrants had been stranded on at least five boats controlled by human-traffickers near the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts for more than 40 days.

Traffickers were holding the people captive on boats amid “food shortages, dehydration and violence” unless they paid for their release, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

The agency has said a total of nearly 4,000 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh may be stranded at sea.

The UN’s human rights and refugee chiefs joined others in calling on Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand on Tuesday to launch search and rescue operations, bring boatpeople to land and launch procedures for assessing any refugee claims.

Last week UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon and the US State Department called for action to help the boatpeople.

The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.

But many Rohingya are fleeing their homes in western Myanmar after years of violence and discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Most head for Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Each spring, boats stream southward out of the Bay of Bengal, trying to beat seasonal monsoon storms.

Anifah called Sunday on Myanmar — which fiercely disavows any responsibility for the Rohingya — to engage in talks on the crisis.

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