BANGKOK – Senior officials from across Asia will meet Friday in Bangkok to tackle the growing problem of desperate people landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, as Rohingya Muslims flee persecution in Myanmar and poor Bangladeshis crowd onto boats in the hope of finding jobs in other countries.
In the past month, more than 3,000 of them have landed in the three countries, sparking concerns about how to help them and how to stop the flow.
Friday's meeting will include representatives from 17 countries directly and indirectly affected by crisis, as well as others such as the United States and Japan, and officials from international organizations such as the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration.
The director-general of the IOM, William Lacy Swing, said on the eve of the meeting that one important result was already achieved in getting the countries to agree to talk.
"The other thing that from my perspective would be good, if it's going to be meaningful, is to have some kind of a follow-on mechanism to make sure the conversation, the dialogue continues on all these questions, including the root causes," he said.
The main root cause is seen as the massive discrimination against minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The government denies the Rohingya citizenship, making them effectively stateless. It views the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya living in dire conditions in western Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya have fled predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and for years, Southeast Asia has quietly ignored the issue, but the problem erupted more into the open as Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking earlier this month. That prompted smugglers to abandon their boats, leaving what aid groups estimated were thousands of migrants stranded at sea. Survivors, including women and children, came ashore with first-hand accounts of beatings, ransom kidnappings by traffickers and near-starvation.
Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the people still stranded at sea, and to put pressure on Myanmar to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.
Swing said a long-term, comprehensive policy has to be put together, and that no single element by itself is going to solve the issue. But he said Myanmar was a key.
"I think Myanmar has to be engaged in any solution involving any of the groups, absolutely," he said.
Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to provide the migrants with one-year shelter. Indonesia says Rohingya can stay for a year while Bangladeshis will be repatriated. It is unclear what happens after a year, and both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement options.
Thailand has offered humanitarian help but not shelter. More than 100,000 refugees, mostly from Myanmar's other ethnic groups, have been living in border camps for decades, and Thailand says it cannot afford any more.
Associated Press writer Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.