Fishermen rescue 430 starving boat refugees
In a major breakthrough that could finally come to grips with Southeast Asia's migrant crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia offered to temporarily take in thousands of people who have been stranded at sea.
However, the countries have appealed for international help, saying the crisis is a global, not a regional, problem.
The reversal in their positions after weeks of saying the migrants were not welcome came as more than 430 weak, hungry people were rescued - not by navies patrolling the waters but by a flotilla of Indonesian fishermen who brought them ashore in the eastern province of Aceh.
One of the fishermen who led the rescue effort said that when he spotted the migrants' green wooden trawler and saw the people on board screaming for help, he began to weep.
"As we came close, I was shocked. I saw them crammed onto the boat. It left me speechless and I broke down in tears as I watched them screaming, waving their hands and clothes," said 40-year-old Razali Puteh.
People from the boat began jumping into the water trying to reach him, but the fisherman told them to stay put and then returned with other fishing boats. "I could not let them die, because they are also human beings. Just like me," Puteh said. "I am grateful to have saved hundreds of lives."
In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 people - Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty - have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of Southeast Asian countries better known for their white-sand beaches. Aid groups estimate that thousands more are stranded at sea following a crackdown on human traffickers that prompted captains and smugglers to abandon boats.
The mounting crisis prompted Malaysia to call an emergency meeting with the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Thailand yesterday. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation grouping of Southeast Asian countries known as ASEAN. "This is not an ASEAN problem," Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said after the meeting. "This is a problem for the international community."
Part of the crisis stemmed from the stance of ASEAN nations, which until now was to push boats away and not allow migrants to reach their shores, fearing that allowing a few to come in would lead to an unstoppable flow.
Yesterday, Malaysia and Indonesia "agreed to offer temporary shelter provided that the settlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," according to a joint statement. Speaking to reporters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Anifah said the two countries would not wait for international support but would start giving migrants shelter "immediately."
Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla said his government would shelter Rohingya for one year, while the Bangladeshis would be sent back home. "A year is (the) maximum," he said. "But there should be international cooperation."
Thailand has said it cannot afford to take more migrants because it is already overburdened by tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar.
Its foreign ministry announced it has agreed to provide humanitarian assistance and will not "push back migrants stranded in Thai territorial waters." It remained unclear how it would deal with such people, or where the Rohingya could permanently settle.
The UN says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar recognizes them as citizens. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even the name Rohingya is taboo. Myanmar officials refer to the group as "Bengalis" and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.
Over the past few years, Myanmar's Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way. The UN refugee agency believes there are some 4,000 still at sea.