Malaysia to start search and rescue missions for migrants at sea

Indonesia, Malaysia agree to take in migrant ships
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Story highlights

  • Australia says it won't take any of the asylum seekers
  • Malaysian leader orders maritime agencies to search for migrants
  • Thousands are believed to be at sea on vessels run by people-smugglers

(CNN)Malaysia's Prime Minister has ordered the country's maritime agencies to start search and rescue missions for migrants on boats out at sea.

"I have further ordered Royal Malaysian Navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency to conduct search and rescue efforts for Rohingya boats. We have to prevent loss of life," Prime Minister Najib Razak posted on his official Facebook account.
    Considered to be among the most persecuted people in the world, Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing Myanmar, boarding boats owned by human-smugglers with the promise of a new life in Southeast Asia.
    Up to 7,000 Rohingya -- and economic migrants from Bangladesh -- are believed to be stranded on wooden boats in the Andaman Sea with little food and water.
    The Malaysian search and rescue order came one day after a meeting of officials from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur to discuss what to do about the influx of desperate people.
    A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration applauded the move but said the search should have started sooner.
    "It's great that governments are doing it now, and I applaud them, but this is exactly what governments should have been doing all along," said Steven Hamilton, the organization's deputy chief of mission in Indonesia.
    Migrant crisis in Southeast Asia
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    Hamilton confirmed to CNN that a boat carrying 433 people arriving in Indonesia's Aceh province on Wednesday was the same vessel first spotted last week off Thailand that made international headlines.
    He said he sent photos taken from the Thai military's airdrop of food to his staff on the ground in Aceh.
    "They showed the migrants and they said. 'Yes, that's us,' " Hamilton said.
    The migrants are settling in, and a refugee camp is being set up, Hamilton said. They will remain in Aceh.
    "Services are being put in place. The people who were sick have been taken to hospital," he said. "For now, this place is good enough."

    What caused the crisis?

    A Thai crackdown on human-smugglers has encouraged traffickers to stay away from the shore, for fear of arrest. Thailand has made it clear that migrant camps along the border with Malaysia will not be tolerated.
    Police raids uncovered a mass grave at one such camp this month, which contained 30 to 40 bodies -- along with a lone survivor, believed to be from Myanmar, also known as Burma.
    Human Rights Watch said police reports indicated that the victims "starved to death or died of disease while being held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms."
    In recent weeks, hundreds of migrants have come ashore in Malaysia and Aceh in Indonesia after making the risky journey south through the Andaman Sea.
    At Wednesday's meeting, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to accept thousands of migrants temporarily as long as the international community helps to resettle them within one year.
    Thailand has yet to announce what role it will play, although in a joint statement, the three nations said they had all taken measures -- beyond their international obligations -- to address the "current influx of irregular migrants." They also urged other countries to help them.

    Addressing the causes

    On Thursday, after a meeting with his Thai counterpart, Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw said his country was considering sending a delegation to high-level talks planned for May 29.
    Myanmar had initially refused to participate in the meeting on the crisis because of the planned use of the term "Rohingya." Myanmar does not recognize the Muslim minority as Burmese citizens. Instead, it considers them interlopers from Bangladesh despite the fact many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
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    While the development appeared to offer some hope of Burmese involvement in the escalating human crisis, Thant Kyaw again raised the thorny issue of citizenship.
    "If they are Myanmars and if they show that their residency is from Myanmar, I think (the) Myanmar government has the obligation to bring them back. So we need to know who really are Myanmar citizens," he said.
    The statement comes to the crux of the issue of who the "irregular migrants" are and why they're fleeing.
    At a U.S. State Department briefing Wednesday, spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States remained "concerned about the factors that drive people to risk their lives at sea, including the government of Burma's policy toward its Rohingya minority, and racially and religiously motivated discrimination."
    Harf said the United States was "taking a careful look" at a request from Malaysia and Indonesia for help in resettling people who arrived on their shores.
    However, Australia has ruled out shouldering any of the burden.
    "Nope, nope, nope," Prime Minister Tony Abbott said when asked if his country would accept any of the asylum seekers.
    "We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats. If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better."