Malaysia launched high-level talks with its neighbours on Sunday to try to solve the deepening problem of refugees stranded in boats off South-east Asia’s shores. But there appeared to be no quick solution to the crisis.
The Malaysian Foreign Minister, Anifah Aman, met with his counterpart from Bangladesh, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, ahead of a meeting with the Indonesian and Thai foreign ministers scheduled for Wednesday. But more than two weeks into a regional humanitarian crisis, the stance of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia remained unchanged – that none wants to take the migrants in, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow. Burma, from where many of the migrants have fled, appeared unwilling to engage in talks.
“I have already stated that we cannot afford to accept more of them, as a huge number already exist here – and so far no countries want to settle them,” Mr Aman was quoted as saying by Malaysia’s government-linked mass daily, the New Straits Times.
The Malaysian and Bangladeshi foreign ministers met in Sabah state on Borneo island as part of a pre-planned annual consultation between the two countries, officials said. “We have to look at our own interests, too, our social problems and security problems – we have to take that into consideration,” Mr Aman said. “We are asking Myanmar [Burma] to participate in finding a solution.”
Boatloads of more than 2,000 migrants – ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty – have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in recent weeks. Aid groups estimate that thousands more are stranded at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their human cargo.
Navy ships from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have in recent days intercepted boats packed with desperate, hungry migrants, giving them food and water and sending them away – a move that sparked international outrage.
Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which has been criticised for long ignoring the plight of the Rohingya.