Attention turned today to the seas off Southeast Asia's west coast as Malaysian naval vessels searched for stranded boat people and the US military prepared air patrols to step up its involvement.
Thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar are believed to be trapped on crowded boats with little food or water some after being pushed back by the navies of at least three countries and the international community has warned that time to save them is running out.
In the first official rescue operation since migrants started washing onto Southeast Asia shores earlier this month, four Malaysian navy ships began searching the country's territorial waters for the boats. Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.
After pushing back several vessels earlier in the month, Malaysia and Indonesia said yesterday they will provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children if the international community helps resettle them within a year.
Indonesia said it would not actively search for the migrants, but will rescue those stranded or drifting in the country's waters close to its shores, said Arrmanatha Nasir, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. He said the country would not push them back out to sea.
About 3,600 refugees and migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, about half Rohingya and the rest from Bangladesh, according to the International Organization for Migration. The UN refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea.
The US military said it was preparing to send maritime aviation patrols throughout the region, Pentagon spokesman Lt Col Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press yestersday. The Department of Defense "is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously," he said.
Washington has been urging governments in the region to cooperate on search and rescue operations and sheltering the refugees and migrants. Most of the Bangladeshis are believed to be fleeing poverty and seeking better economic opportunities in Malaysia and elsewhere.
The Rohingya are fleeing state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, where the government regards them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as "Bengalis," not "Rohingya" even though many have lived in the country for generations. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.