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Thailand’s foreign minister called on Friday for concerted action to tackle irregular migration in the Indian Ocean, as regional nations met for talks aimed at preventing another “boat people” crisis.
Representatives from Southeast Asian countries are meeting in Bangkok to hash out a framework to deal with tens of thousands of migrants, most from Burma and Bangladesh, who make perilous voyages across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea every year.
“It’s clear that we need an explicit and efficient mechanism to manage and control the negative impacts of irregular migration,” Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said in opening remarks.
“The time for promises has passed. Now is the time for action. Therefore, it’s my hope that today’s discussion will result in concrete and goal-oriented actions that countries can start implementing, not in some distant future, but today and now.”
The conference is the second round of talks that were launched in May amid a migration crisis prompted by a human trafficking crackdown in Thailand.
The crackdown caused traffickers to abandon 4,000 migrants from Burma and Bangladesh at sea, and was marked by a chaotic spectacle of “maritime ping-pong” as the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies repeatedly pushed desperate migrants in boats away from their waters.
October and November mark the start of the four-month “sailing season”, the busiest time for smuggling and trafficking ships plying the Bay of Bengal.
This week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) urged efforts to avoid a repeat of this year’s disaster when hundreds of refugees were lost at sea or died in jungle camps.
On Thursday, the IOM said Southeast Asia needed legal channels of migration to curb people smuggling.
Don said the meeting would not necessarily yield long-term solutions to the crisis, adding that about 900 migrants who arrived by boat were currently in Thailand.
While some migrants are Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home, many are members of Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim community who live in apartheid-like conditions in the country’s Arakan State.
Burma does not consider the Rohingya citizens, rendering them effectively stateless, while denying it discriminates against them or that they are fleeing persecution.
At the May meeting, Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticised those who blamed Burma for Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis.
Don said the issue of Rohingya citizenship would not be discussed on Friday.
“No, it hasn’t been raised pointedly, but it was borne in the back of the minds of all participants that this is one of the relevant questions.”