In a positive sign, Burma – the country which many of the refugees, ethnic Rohingya, are fleeing – said it will attend a regional meeting in the Thai capital, 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 south-east 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 on Wednesday 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 still at sea. The United Nations refugee agency believes there are 4,000 still at sea, although some activists estimate at least 6,000.
Prime minister Najib Razak addressed the concern via Twitter, saying that he had ordered the navy and coastguard “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 migrant-laden 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.