A boat packed with more than 700 migrants has been seized by the navy off Burma’s south coast, but officials appeared undecided about the ultimate destination of those on board.
Myo Win, the township administrator of Hainggyi Island, said the boat was taken to nearby Leik Island and the migrants were kept on board while they were provided with food, water and medical help. “The boat won’t rest at Leik Island tonight ... I heard they will be taken to Sittwe or Maungdaw [in Rakhine State], to then be sent to Bangladesh.”
The boat was found in the Andaman Sea on Friday, with 608 men, 74 women and 45 children on board, according to the Ministry of Information. Those on board told officials they had been at sea in three boats since March, during which at least 50 migrants died. The passengers were later abandoned in one boat by traffickers, the ministry said.
Officials had on Friday initially labelled those on the boat “Bengalis” – a term used to refer both to stateless Rohingya from Rakhine State, as well as Bangladeshis. The government later said most of those on board are believed to be from Bangladesh. The government had initially said it would take the migrants to a navy base on Hainggyi Island, but Commander Soe Min, an assistant to Burma’s navy chief, said: “The navy may take them somewhere further north … We’re not even sure yet.”
The discovery of the boat on Friday came as Burma told a 17-nation meeting in Thailand that it was not to blame for the crisis that has seen more than 4,000 desperate Muslim Rohingya from Burma and Bangladeshi migrants take to the seas across South-east Asia in the past month.
The meeting in Bangkok was attended by representatives from countries directly or indirectly affected by the crisis, along with the United States and Japan, and officials from the UN and the International Organisation for Migration. Little was achieved at the conference, but the fact that so many countries – including Burma – participated was considered progress in itself.
“The most encouraging result was the general consensus that these discussions need to continue,” said IOM director-general William Lacy Swing. “It cannot be a one-off.”
Burma has come under heavy criticism for discrimination against the Rohingya. Most of these stateless 1.1 million people live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012.
At the start of Friday’s meeting, the UN’s assistant high commissioner for refugees responsible for protection, Volker Turk, said there could be no solution if root causes are not addressed.
“This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal,” he said. “In the interim ... recognition that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required [as well as] access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms.”