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Malaysia and Indonesia said on Wednesday they would no longer turn away migrant vessels, responding to world pressure by offering to take in a wave of boat people provided that they could be resettled or repatriated within a year.
The three nations have sparked outrage by preventing vessels overloaded with starving migrants from Bangladesh and from Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority from landing on their shores.
“The towing and the shooing [away of boats] is not going to happen,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said at a joint press conference with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi after talks on the issue.
“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 talks in Malaysia had also included Thai foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn but he was not present for the press conference.
Anifah said the Thai side refrained from joining in the offer, saying it had to first refer back to whether the move would be allowed by “domestic laws” in Thailand.
“In the meantime, Malaysia and Indonesia invite other countries in the region to join in this endeavour,” Anifah said.
Around 3,000 such migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past week after a Thai crackdown prompted some people-traffickers to abandon their human cargo at sea.
Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimates put the number of people stranded at sea at around 7,000 people.
The offer of shelter was applicable only to those people now on the seas, Anifah said.
Another 433 people were rescued early Wednesday off Indonesia, with local fisherman who saved them saying many were in appalling shape from their ordeal at sea and that passengers reported some of their fellow migrants had died of starvation.
Burma, officially known as Myanmar, also has come under growing pressure to help stem the outflow of Muslim Rohingya, who are fleeing their homes in the country’s western Arakan [Rakhine] State after years of violence and discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Most head for Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Burmese state media on Wednesday quoted a foreign ministry statement saying the government “shares concerns” expressed by the international community and is “ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea.”