BANGKOK • Thailand's foreign minister called for concerted action and a redoubling of efforts to tackle irregular migration in the Indian Ocean, as nations in the region met for talks aimed at preventing another "boat people" crisis.
"It's clear that we need an explicit and efficient mechanism to manage and control the negative impacts of irregular migration," Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said in his opening remarks yesterday at the Bangkok meeting.
Representatives of South-east Asian countries are trying to hash out a framework to deal with the tens of thousands of migrants, mostly from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who make perilous voyages across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea every year.
"The time for promises has passed. Now is the time for action. It's my hope that today's discussion will result in concrete and goal-oriented actions that countries can start implementing, not in some distant future, but today and now," Mr Don said.
TIME TO ACT
It's clear that we need an explicit and efficient mechanism to manage and control the negative impacts of irregular migration... The time for promises has passed. Now is the time for action.
THAI FOREIGN MINISTER DON PRAMUDWINAI
"This problem is not a short-lived one. It will not simply go away."
The conference is the second round of talks that were launched in May amid a migration crisis triggered by a human trafficking crackdown in Thailand.
On Thursday, the International Organisation for Migration said South-east Asia needed legal channels of migration to curb human smuggling.
Mr Don said the meeting would not necessarily yield long-term solutions, adding that about 900 migrants who had arrived by boat were now in Thailand.
The summit comes at a time when boats crammed with migrants traditionally depart following the end of the monsoon season.
Warning that the monsoon season is coming to an end, Mr Don said: "It is very likely that maritime movements in the Indian Ocean will soon begin again... we need to continue to work together towards a truly comprehensive and sustainable solution."
But as the annual monsoon ebbs over the Bay of Bengal, it is unclear if people will set off in the same numbers seen in previous years.
With trafficking networks under the cosh in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, some analysts of the trade expect fewer boats to make the treacherous journey south.
Some migrants are Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home, but many belong to Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community of 1.1 million, who live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state.
Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens but denies that it discriminates against them or that they are fleeing persecution.
A senior official from the United Nations refugee agency praised Bangladesh for working towards regularising some migration from its shores since the crisis spooled out. But he was scathing of Myanmar, which denies most Rohingya citizenship or the right to vote and erects a host of other barriers.
"The heart of the matter lies in ensuring a legal identity for all people on its territory and the ensuing fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of movement, non-discrimination and access to services," said Mr Volker Turk, the agency's assistant high commissioner for protection.
At the meeting in May, Myanmar's Foreign Ministry criticised those who blamed the country for the region's migrant crisis.
Mr Don said the issue of Rohingya citizenship would not be discussed at yesterday's session.
"It hasn't been raised pointedly, but it was borne in the back of the minds of all participants that this is one of the relevant questions."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE