Malaysia and Indonesia have said they will offer shelter to 7,000 refugees and migrants adrift at sea in rickety boats but made clear that their assistance was temporary and they would take no more.
More than 3,000 have landed so far this month in Malaysia and Indonesia. Together with Thailand, the two south-east Asian countries have pushed away many boats that approached their shores despite appeals from the United Nations to take them in.
While the latest statement signalled a shift in policy by Malaysia and Indonesia that would allow the migrants to come ashore, they underlined that the international community also had a responsibility to help them deal with the crisis.
The migrants are Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Bangladeshis – who fled persecution and poverty at home or were abducted by traffickers, and now face sickness and starvation at sea.
“What we have clearly stated is that we will take in only those people in the high sea,” the Malaysian foreign minister, Anifah Aman, said. “But under no circumstances would we be expected to take each one of them if there is an influx of others.”
Malaysia and Indonesia said in a joint statement in Kuala Lumpur that they would offer resettlement and repatriation, a process that would be “done in a year by the international community”.
Aman said temporary shelters would be set up, but not in Thailand, a favoured transit point for the migrants who try to make their way to work illegally in Malaysia.
Thai officials have said authorities will check on migrants at sea and will allow the sick to come ashore for medical attention, but the government has stopped short of saying whether it would allow others to disembark.
Thailand, whose foreign minister also attended the meeting in the Malaysian capital, has called a regional conference on the issue in Bangkok for next week.
“We maintain our stance that we are a transit country. In the meeting we said that our country has more problems than theirs,” the Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said. “On whether we will accept or not accept more migrants you have to wait until 29 May when various organisations and countries will meet.”
Hours before the ministers met to discuss a crisis on which the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has barely commented, hundreds of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province.
“We have to find ways to resettling them as soon as possible without creating a new moral hazard,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political adviser to Indonesia’s vice-president, said. “If migrants start thinking of Indonesia as a transit point or as having a higher chance of getting resettled, that would create another problem that we have to prevent.”
She added that the main responsibility lay with Burma. The UN said last weekthe Burmese government must end the persecution of Rohingya Muslims if the pattern of migration from the corner of the Bay of Bengal into the Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait is to stop.
Most of Burma’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.
Rangoon labels Rohingya Muslims as “Bengalis”, a name most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh despite having lived in Burma for generations.
“We have a big desire to help but this is not just Indonesia’s responsibility. This is mainly the responsibility of the Burmese government, which should be protecting all its citizens and not forcing some of them to flee,” Anwar said.
On Wednesday, Burma’s foreign ministry said the government was making “serious efforts” to prevent people smuggling and illegal migration.
This included patrolling by the navy and air force in Burma’s territorial waters, it said, adding that the country was prepared to work with the international community to alleviate the suffering of smuggled victims.
Source: The Guardian