BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Foreign Minister said Friday that the upsurge of boat people in Southeast Asia has reached an "alarming level," and called for governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis — a reference to the swelling number of refugees who have fled persecution in Myanmar.
Speaking at the opening of a regional meeting in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn said that "no country can solve this problem alone."
Asian nations have been struggling in the face of growing waves of desperate migrants who are landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in growing numbers. In the last few weeks alone, at least 3,000 people have washed ashore or been rescued by fishermen and several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned boats amid a regional crackdown.
Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are minority Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which has denied them basic rights, confined more than 100,000 to camps, and denies them citizenship. There are more than 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar.
"The influx of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an alarming level," Thanasak said. But "while we are trying to help those in need, we must stop the outflow of irregular migrants and combat transnational crime and destroy their networks."
He also added: "The root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed."
Anne C. Richard, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said "we strongly believe we have to save lives urgently. We have to develop better ways of discussing and meeting on these issues and taking action when people are setting to sea in boats."
Friday's meeting includes representatives from 17 countries directly and indirectly affected by crisis, as well as others such as the United States and Japan, and officials from international organizations such as the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration.
Rohingya have fled Myanmar and for years, and Southeast Asia has quietly ignored the issue. The problem has attracted international attention amid increased media scrutiny in recent months.
Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking last month, prompting smugglers to abandon their boats, leaving what aid groups estimated were thousands of migrants stranded at sea. Survivors, including women and children, came ashore with first-hand accounts of beatings, ransom kidnappings by traffickers and near-starvation.
The director-general of the IOM, William Lacy Swing, said on the eve of the meeting that one important result was already achieved in getting the countries to agree to talk. He said that there needed to be some kind of a follow-on mechanism to make regional governments continue to work closely on the issue.
Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the people still stranded at sea, and to put pressure on Myanmar to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.
Swing said a long-term, comprehensive policy has to be put together, and that no single element by itself is going to solve the issue. But he said Myanmar was a key. "I think Myanmar has to be engaged in any solution involving any of the groups, absolutely," he said.
Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to provide the migrants with one-year shelter. Indonesia says Rohingya can stay for a year while Bangladeshis will be repatriated. It is unclear what happens after a year, and both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement options.
Thailand has offered humanitarian help but not shelter. More than 100,000 refugees, mostly from Myanmar's other ethnic groups, have been living in border camps for decades, and Thailand says it cannot afford any more.
The U.S. has flown five surveillance flights in the region so far, trying to find migrants at sea. But Pentagon spokeswoman Henrietta Levin said only one possible vessel carrying migrants had been spotted so far — a boat with about 11 people visible on deck on Monday. It was not immediately clear what happened to the boat.
U.S. Navy flights are operating daily out of Subang, Malaysia, and Richards said the U.S. had put in a request to Thailand to allow aircraft to fly out of there, but "we have yet to get the approval we seek."
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman in Bangkok and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.