JAKARTA: A boat with more than 700 migrants being escorted by Myanmar’s navy towards its western state of Rakhine is expected to reach land Wednesday, according to a senior US official who demanded they be treated “humanely”.
Myanmar authorities have said the 727 passengers onboard the vessel, found adrift in the Bay of Bengal last Friday, were “Bengalis” and have threatened to send them across the border to Bangladesh.
Myanmar describes its persecuted Rohingya Muslim community, numbering around 1.3 million, as “Bengalis”. Most have no citizenship and are considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Around 3,500 migrants, mainly Rohingya from Myanmar or economic migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, have come ashore in Southeast Asia in recent weeks in an ongoing migrant crisis.
The UNHCR estimated Wednesday around 2,000 more are still trapped at sea, heaping pressure on both countries to take back the migrants and improve living conditions to stem the outflow.
US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, who visited camps housing Rohingya refugees in western Indonesia in recent days, confirmed this latest boat was expected to arrive Wednesday.
“The Burmese (Myanmar) authorities would be then responsible for what happens to people on that boat,” she told reporters in Jakarta.
“My understanding is that if they are from Bangladesh, there will be a quick arrangement with the government of Bangladesh to return their citizens to them.”
She added: “We are following this very closely because we want to make sure any of the innocent people on the boat get proper treatment and are handled humanely.”
She reiterated the US wanted the Rohingya treated as citizens of Myanmar, and would continue pressuring the government in Naypyidaw as it continues its transition to democracy and prepares for elections later this year.
The plight of the Muslim group has come under scrutiny as the migrant crisis has unfurled across in Southeast Asia, after a Thai crackdown on people smuggling threw the multi-million dollar industry into disarray, leading gangmasters to abandon their victims on land and at sea.
US President Barack Obama has recently joined calls urging Myanmar to end discrimination against the Rohingya minority.
When pressed on whether the US would impose sanctions should Myanmar fail to treat the minority population humanely, Richard said they remained an option but were not being actively considered at this stage.
“In the diplomatic toolbox, sanctions is one of the options,” she said.
The Rohingya flee Rakhine in droves each year to escape poverty and persecution in a region where their movements are controlled and they lack access to jobs or basic services.