Myanmar Escorting Boat Crammed with Migrants to 'Safe' Area
TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Myanmar said a boat crammed with 727 migrants that it has kept stranded at sea for days was now being escorted to a "safe" area for identity checks and the United States said it believed those aboard would be allowed ashore in Myanmar this week.
"The operation is starting. They will be taken to a safe destination," Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut told Reuters by telephone, adding that the migrants had been provided with food and water. He would not disclose that location due to "security and safety concerns".
Earlier, Ye Htut had said Myanmar's navy was taking the converted fishing boat to Bangladeshi waters, prompting its neighbor to underline that it would take back only those who were genuinely its citizens, but he later clarified his remarks to say the verification process would take place first.
A spokeswoman for the US State Department said she believed the Myanmar government had decided to allow the migrants to disembark in Myanmar on Wednesday or Thursday, something Washington welcomed.
"We urge (Myanmar) to provide full protection and assistance to these migrants in coordination with UNHCR and IOM, Marie Harf said, referring to the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration.
The 727 migrants are the among an estimated 2,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, that could still be at sea after being abandoned by people-smuggling gangs since a crackdown started last month in Thailand, the UN said.
The migrants were found drifting in the Andaman Sea on Friday in an overloaded fishing boat that was taking on water, Reuters reported.
Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project tracks the movement of Rohingya boats, said the migrants should be put ashore immediately and the United Nations should have access to them to provide assistance and identify who they are.
IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told a news briefing in Geneva the organization was concerned the boat might be taken to Bangladeshi waters and was worried about migrants "not being given due places to land and continuing to suffer while they are aboard these vessels".
Myanmar's government initially labeled the migrants on the overloaded boat "Bengalis", a term it applies to both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, a mostly stateless Muslim minority of about 1.1 million living in apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state.