UN tells South-east Asian countries not to turn away migrants

An Indonesia policeman distributes used clothes to migrants believed to be Rohingya inside a shelter in Lhoksukon, in Indonesia's Aceh province on May 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
An Indonesia policeman distributes used clothes to migrants believed to be Rohingya inside a shelter in Lhoksukon, in Indonesia's Aceh province on May 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday urged South-east Asian countries not to turn back migrants and refugees fleeing on boats, telling them that rescue at sea was an international obligation.

Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to bar ships carrying migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, leaving them stranded in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca.

In a statement, Ban voiced alarm that "some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants".

He urged governments to "ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld and the prohibition of refoulement is maintained".

International law bars countries from refoulement, which refers to the expulsion of refugees who have a right to be recognised.

Ban called on governments to "keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need".

The UN chief called on regional leaders to step up their efforts to respond to the crisis and reminded them that this was an obligation under international law.

The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.

Many of the migrants are Rohingya, who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and have been targeted by sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.