PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: After an announcement by the Philippines of its willingness to take in foreign refugees, particularly some 300 Royinghans who had fled Myanmar last week, Malaysia and Indonesia on Wednesday said they would no longer turn away so-called boat people.
The development is considered a breakthrough in the region’s migrant crisis that came just hours after hundreds more starving people were rescued at sea.
Earlier, Myanmar, whose policies toward its ethnic Rohingya minority are widely blamed for fueling the human flow, also softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian aid to stricken migrants.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand had sparked growing international outrage for driving off boats overloaded with exhausted and dying Rohingya, as well as Bangladeshis.
But Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, in a joint press appearance with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, announced that “the towing and the shooing [away of boats]is not going to happen” any more.
“We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community,” Anifah said.
The pair spoke after talks with Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn.
Thailand did not sign on to the offer, however.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha later told reporters in Bangkok that his government was still considering the plans.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Tuesday praised the Philippines for its willingness to take in foreign refugees.
Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR representative to the Philippines, met with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on the same day to discuss how the Philippines can share best practices with other countries affected by the influx of refugees.
A day before, de Lima said the Philippines has a process for providing protection to genuine asylum seekers, a point that Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. noted in a separate statement.
The two Cabinet officials made their statements in response to questions from the media as to whether the government would be willing to take in a boat-load of about 300 Rohingyans who had fled Myanmar.
The Philippines is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and to the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.
Coloma pointed out that the government sheltered thousands of so-called Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s while de Lima noted that the Philippines has provided asylum to over a thousand Jewish refugees in the Second World War.
“The Philippines is willing to share with other Southeast Asian countries its experience in the management of asylum seekers,” the Justice secretary said.
Nearly 3,000 “boat people” have swum to shore or been rescued off the three countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos, with some of the syndicates involved abandoning their helpless human cargo at sea.
Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimates that about 7,000 people are still stranded at sea.
The UNCHR said Wednesday’s announcement was “an important initial step in the search for solutions to this issue, and vital for the purpose of saving lives.”
In a statement, it called for migrants to be brought ashore “without delay” and for countries in the region to address the “root causes” of the large-scale migration.
Joe Lowry, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an inter-governmental body, called the move “brave and timely.”
In the latest drama involving incoming migrants, 433 starving people were rescued from their rickety boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels earlier on Wednesday, officials and fisherman said.
Journalists confirmed it was the same boat that had earlier bounced between Thailand and Malaysia in recent days as images of its emaciated Rohingya passengers shocked observers worldwide.
Indonesian fishermen Muchtar Ali said he broke down in tears when he saw the passengers.
“I was speechless. Looking at these people, me and my friends cried because they looked so hungry, so skinny,” he told Agence France-Presse.
AFP AND PNA