Rescues first priority for US as migrant summit begins

The United States said on Friday that thousands of migrants adrift in Southeast Asian seas needed urgent rescue, as countries gathered in Bangkok to discuss the regional crisis.

More than 3,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Burma have landed in Indonesia and Malaysia since Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking gangs this month. About 2,600 are believed to be still adrift in boats, relief agencies have said.

“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 the boats and we need to go and look at the root causes of why people feel they have no alternative but to flee their own countries and take such a dangerous, dangerous trip,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard told reporters on her way into the meeting

The gathering brings together 17 countries from across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and elsewhere in Asia, along with the United States, Switzerland and international organisations such as UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

The crisis erupted at the beginning of the month, when the Thai crackdown on people-smuggling camps along its border with Malaysia made it too risky for traffickers to land migrants, prompting them to abandon thousands in crowded boats at sea.

The United States has asked Thailand to fly surveillance flights from Thai bases to identify boats carrying migrants, Richard said, but has yet to get the nod from Thai authorities. The U.S. is operating similar flights from Malaysia, she said.

“We have yet to get the approval we seek, I think we’re close. Importantly, we do have cooperation with Malaysia, so the plane is up in the air, it is surveilling the area and I think that this is a very good thing and so, we’re hopeful to, we can expand that a bit,” Richard said.

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While some of the migrants are Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home, many are members of Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim minority who live in apartheid-like conditions in the country’s Arakan state.

The United States and the United Nations have said the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Burma ends discrimination against the Rohingya.

Burma does not consider the Rohingya citizens, rendering them effectively stateless, while denying it discriminates against them or that they are fleeing persecution. It does not call them Rohingya but refers to them as Bengalis, indicating they are from Bangladesh.

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