INDONESIA and Malaysia moved on Wednesday to end the humanitarian crisis in the Andaman Sea by agreeing to allow an estimated 7,000 boat people to come ashore, but on the condition that they be resettled or repatriated within a year.
This came as Myanmar said it was "ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea", according to state media, climbing down from a hardline stance of refusing to accept any blame for the flight of the Rohingya.
Speaking after a four-hour meeting with his Indonesian and Thai counterparts, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman also stressed that the offer of "temporary shelter" was limited to those now adrift along the three countries' maritime borders and that "under no circumstances" would it be extended to "an influx" of other illegals.
Reading out a joint statement by the three neighbours, he said no specific locations for shelters had been agreed on. But he called on the rest of the world to provide the necessary support, "particularly financial assistance", for "humanitarian assistance to the irregular migrants currently at risk".
"Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea. We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter, provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," said Datuk Seri Anifah at a press conference with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi.
The migrants, mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims fleeing civil strife in Myanmar as well as some Bangladeshi nationals, have been left in dire straits for weeks after human traffickers abandoned them following Thailand's crackdown on people-smuggling camps.
An initial group of 1,100 had been allowed to land on Malaysia's resort island of Langkawi on May 10, while another 2,000 have arrived in Aceh, Indonesia, since last week, including more than 400 yesterday.
But the countries have turned away other boats, triggering mounting international condemnation as starving migrants sought to reach their shores.
The talks in Malaysia included Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn but he did not attend the news conference.
Mr Anifah explained that Thailand could not offer to house the migrants temporarily as it had to check first if such a move complied with domestic law.
But he warned that the offer to shelter the 7,000 stuck at sea should not be considered a standing arrangement. "In no way, under no circumstances, in an influx of other illegal immigrants are we expected to take in each and every one of them," he said.
Ms Retno was headed directly to Yangon yesterday for a pre-arranged bilateral meeting while Mr Anifah, whose nation chairs Asean this year, said he was also seeking to meet his Myanmar counterpart.
United States Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quoted by Reuters as saying in Jakarta yesterday that "ultimately (Myanmar) must take steps to address the root causes that drove these people (to sea) and we need long-term sustainable solutions, development, protection of basic human rights". He is due to visit Myanmar today to discuss the unfolding crisis with its government.