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US Urges SE Asian Countries to Save Boat People

The United States is urging Southeast Asian governments to work to save the lives of migrants and refugees abandoned at sea by people smugglers.

Deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes singled out the plight of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar, saying that Southeast Asian nations must make efforts to save the refugees at sea as well as to improve domestic conditions that contribute to the migration.

During a meeting Friday with senior officials from the regional group ASEAN, Rhodes also noted that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia already host substantial migrant communities.

Activists estimate as many as 8,000 so-called boat people remain adrift in the region, many without adequate food or water, after a Thai crackdown on a vast smuggling ring disrupted the criminal transportation networks.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand say the migrants are not their responsibility and have rejected appeals by the United Nations and rights groups.

Many of the refugees making the dangerous journeys are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, also known as Burma, where they are the victims of persecution that the organization Human Rights Watch says amounts to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Rohingya people in Myanmar are largely denied basic rights such as citizenship and freedom of movement.

At least 700 rescued

More than 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants arrived in Indonesia on Friday after they were rescued by fishing boats when their vessel sank off the coast of Aceh province.

Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi said Thursday that his country must "send the right message: that they are not welcome here." Other Malaysian officials said sea and air patrols were being ramped up to prevent "illegal intrusion."

Earlier this week, more than 1,000 abandoned boat people swam ashore in Malaysia. Officials said they were being held in detention camps while preparations were made to send them elsewhere.

Other boats carrying hundreds of people have been intercepted by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies, which, after providing the migrants with emergency food and water supplies, turned them away.

U.N. urges assistance

The U.N. refugee agency this week appealed for an international search-and-rescue operation to help the boat people. Many survivors have said those stuck at sea are hungry and sick, and some have died.

The boat people are victims of a large-scale human trafficking campaign under which the migrants were promised jobs in neighboring countries but were later held for ransom or sold, essentially as slaves.

After years of pressure by international rights groups, Thailand recently moved to crack down on the multimillion-dollar smuggling ring. In the process, it found several abandoned jungle camps, including some that contained mass graves with dozens of bodies. Officials have arrested more than a dozen alleged smugglers, including some senior local officials.

Listen to VOA's Steve Herman interview IOM country director Jeffrey Labovitz in Thailand regarding the refugee/migrant situation in Southeast Asia: