Naval vessels from Myanmar and Malaysia continued to search for thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants still stranded at sea Friday, as the U.S. military prepared air patrols to help locate rickety boats at danger of sinking.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar and economic migrants from Bangladesh 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 Asian shores earlier this month, four Malaysian navy ships searched the country's territorial waters for the boats. Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.
Myanmar's navy found two fishing boats filled with 208 men during a patrol Thursday night off the coast of Myanmar's Rakhine state, the main point of departure for Rohingya minority Muslims fleeing the Buddhist country.
Zaw Htay, director of Myanmar's presidential office, said Friday the men were identified as Bangladeshi and would be sent back to the neighboring country.
"The Myanmar navy continues with search and rescue activities in Myanmar waters," he said. "If they find any boat with migrants, they will provide humanitarian assistance, conduct verification and return them to where they came from."
The Rohingya are fleeing hatred and religious violence in Myanmar, where the government regards them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh — and refers to them as "Bengalis," not "Rohingya" — even though the community has had a presence in the country for centuries. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.
About 3,600 refugees and migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration. Half are Rohingya and the rest are from Bangladesh, the IOM said. Many endured voyages of more than 1,000 miles on overcrowded boats that last lasted weeks or months.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea after a regional crackdown on human traffickers at the beginning of the month prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.
Southeast Asian countries initially responded to the crisis by refusing to take in the migrants. But after pushing back several vessels earlier in the month, Malaysia and Indonesia said Thursday they would 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.
The U.S. military said it was preparing to send "maritime aviation patrols throughout the region," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press on Thursday. 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.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya are fleeing years of state-sanctioned discrimination. Over the past few years, Rohingya were targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and then confined to camps in western Rakhine state. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.
Myanmar overcame initial reluctance and agreed to join a regional meeting next week in Thailand to address the crisis.
"We are ready to cooperate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds," said Zaw Htay, director of the president's office on Thursday.
The decision was made after an invitation letter arrived, he said, noting it did not imply Myanmar was solely responsible for the crisis or use the word Rohingya — two conditions Myanmar had set for its attending the conference.
The United States has said it was prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort organized by the U.N. refugee agency to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, visiting Southeast Asia, met Thursday with Myanmar's president, its army commander in chief and other officials, raising "deep concern about the thousands of vulnerable migrants stranded at sea," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
"He stressed the need for Burma to address the root causes of this migration, including the racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence facing the Rohingya population in Rakhine State," Harf said, using the former name for Myanmar.
Speaking to reporters in Yangon on Friday, Blinken called on Myanmar to grant its persecuted Rohingya minority citizenship rights as a way to help reduce the current exodus of migrants across the Bay of Bengal.
"They should have a path to citizenship," Blinken said a day after talks with Myanmar leaders on the ongoing crisis, adding "the uncertainty that comes from not having any status is one of the things that may drive people to leave.”
But in remarks likely to spark further concern about the country’s desire to tackle the crisis, Myanmar's military commander-in-chief said that "boat people" landing in Malaysia and Indonesia this month are likely pretending to be Rohingya Muslims to receive U.N. aid and that many had fled neighboring Bangladesh.
Senior Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing "hinted that most victims are expected to assume themselves to be Rohingya from Myanmar in the hope of receiving assistance from UNHCR" during Thursday’s meeting with Blinken, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on Friday.
He cited reports that the "boat victims" were from Bangladesh.
"He stressed the need to investigate their country of origin rather than to accuse a country," the newspaper reported.
Al Jazeera and wire services