YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar has returned 159 Bangladeshi migrants rescued from boats stranded off its coast in May, officials said Tuesday, the latest group to be repatriated after a migration crisis that unfurled across Southeast Asia.
More than 800 men, women and children were picked up from ships abandoned by smugglers in the Bay of Bengal in recent months, after a Thai crackdown on people-smuggling led gang bosses to abandon their human cargo on land and at sea.
It sparked a long verification process between Myanmar and Bangladesh to determine the nationality of the migrants, with neither side showing a willingness to accept them at first.
On Monday, Myanmar authorities handed over 159 people to their Bangladeshi counterparts, according to Myanmar state media, which showed a line of mainly young men crossing a bridge escorted by armed troops.
However, a number of migrants were still undergoing verification.
"The remaining 230 Bangladeshi will be transferred as soon as possible. The Bangladesh side are conducting a rigorous verification process," a government official in Rakhine state told AFP, asking to remain unnamed.
He said the latest returns were delayed because of devastating floods that have swept across Myanmar in recent weeks.
The migrant crisis that gripped Southeast Asia earlier this year threw a spotlight on the multi-million dollar racket that has emerged to smuggle desperate migrants.
Most of them are persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and economic migrants from Bangladesh who brave the perilous voyage in the hope of finding a better life, usually bound for Malaysia via Thailand.
Earlier batches of migrants were returned to Bangladesh in June and July.