SIMPANG TIGA, Indonesia – A flotilla of Indonesian fishermen rescued more than 430 migrants who were stranded at sea and brought them ashore to safety Wednesday, the latest victims of a humanitarian crisis confronting Southeast Asia.
Hoping to find a solution, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia held an emergency meeting to address the plight of the migrants who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh.
The migrants were rescued early Wednesday by more than a dozen fishermen's boats, said Herman Sulaiman, from East Aceh district's Search and Rescue Agency.
It was unclear if the migrants were on one boat or had come from several. An initial batch of 102 people were the first brought to shore in the village of Simpang Tiga in Indonesia's eastern Aceh province, Sulaiman and other rescuers said.
"They were suffering from dehydration, they are weak and starving," Khairul Nove, head of Langsa Search and Rescue Agency in Aceh province. Among the 102 passengers were 26 women and 31 children, he said.
One of the migrants, Ubaydul Haque, 30, said the ship's engine had failed and the captain fled, and that they were at sea for four months before Indonesian fishermen found them.
"We ran out of food, we wanted to enter Malaysia but we were not allowed," he said.
One of the fishermen who led the rescue was 40-year-old Razali Puteh. He said he spotted a green wooden trawler crammed with people who were screaming, waving their hands and clothes at him to get his attention.
As he neared the trawler, people aboard began jumping into the water, trying to reach his boat. He said he asked them to stay on their boat, which apparently had no motor, and promised to return with help. He then returned with other fishing boats and brought the migrants to shore.
The rescue came after Indonesia's foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, said late Tuesday that the country had "given more than it should" to help hundreds of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants stranded on boats by human traffickers.
Marsudi met Wednesday with her counterparts from Malaysia and Thailand in an emergency meeting in Kuala Lumpur called to discuss how to solve the migrant problem. Representatives from the U.N. refugee agency and the International Office for Migration were also expected to attend the meeting.
"This irregular migration is not the problem of one or two nations. This is a regional problem which also happens in other places. This is also a global problem," Marsudi told reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the presidential palace.
Marsudi said Indonesia has already sheltered 1,346 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who washed onto Aceh and North Sumatra provinces last week. The first batch came on May 10 with 558 people on a boat, and the second with 807 on three boats landed on Friday.
Even before the crisis, nearly 12,000 migrants were being sheltered in Indonesia awaiting resettlement, she said, with most of those Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. No more than 500 of those migrants are resettled in third countries each year, she said.
"Indonesia has given more than it should do as a non-member-state of the Refugee Convention of 1951," she said.
Like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have not signed the U.N. convention, which would obligate them to accept some refugees. All have said they can longer accept Rohingya refugees; Malaysia, the country many Rohingya try to reach, already has about 45,000 of them, many of them living in squalor because they cannot legally work.
The crisis emerged this month as governments in the region began cracking down on human trafficking. Some captains of trafficking boats abandoned their vessels — and hundreds of migrants — at sea. Prior to the arrival of new migrants Wednesday, about 3,000 had reached land in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, in recent weeks.
The UNHCR, the U.S. refugee agency, estimated that nearly 4,000 people remain stranded at sea with dwindling supplies.
Myanmar's cooperation is seen as vital to solving the crisis, but its government has already cast doubt on whether it will attend a conference to be hosted by Thailand on May 29 that is to include 15 Asian nations affected by the emergency.
Myanmar officials have said they will not attend if the word "Rohingya" is mentioned on the invitation or if Myanmar is going to be blamed as "the source of the problem."
The Rohingya Muslims have faced decades of state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. The U.N. says they are one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
In the past three years, Rohingya were targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists, leaving hundreds dead and sparking an exodus of more than 120,000 people, according to the UNHCR. Even the name Rohingya is taboo in Myanmar, which calls them "Bengalis" and insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in the country for generations.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.