Malaysia’s prime minister says he has ordered the navy and the coastguard to comb the sea for thousands of stranded migrants.
Najib Razak’s move makes Malaysia the first country to announce it will search for the refugees in desperate need of help instead of waiting for them to wash up on south-east Asia’s shores.
As the region’s migrant crisis enters its fourth week, it remains unclear how many vulnerable people are adrift at sea but aid groups and the UN say there could be thousands and time is running out to save them.
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 yesterday 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 stranded at sea. The UN refugee agency believes there are 4,000 still at sea, although some activists put the number at 6,000.
Mr Razak addressed the concern on Twitter, saying 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 boats.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister of Malaysia is visiting Burma to discuss the crisis. The ministry issued a delicately worded statement saying the two would “exchange views on irregular movements of people ... in south-east Asia”. Burma refuses to shoulder any blame for the crisis or discuss the matter if the word “Rohingya” is mentioned.
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. 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.
While Indonesia and Malaysia said they would temporarily take in some refugees, they also appealed for international help, saying the crisis is a global, not a regional, problem.
Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla said his government was ready to shelter Rohingya for one year, while the Bangladeshis would be sent back home. “A year is (the) maximum,” he said. “But there should be international co-operation.” Malaysia has also set a one-year time limit.
So far there have been two offers from the international community.
In Washington, the State Department said the US was willing to take in Rohingya refugees as part of international efforts to cope with the crisis. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US is prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort, organised by the United Nations refugee agency, to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.
The tiny African country of Gambia has also said it was willing to take in Rohingya refugees. “As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is (our) sacred duty to help,” the presidency said in a statement.