A senior U.S. diplomat says Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya, who have been fleeing poverty and persecution in the country, should have a "path to citizenship" as a way to help solve the current humanitarian crisis in the region.
"The uncertainty that comes with not even having any status is one of the things that may drive people to leave," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Friday in Yangon, where he has held talks with Myanmar officials.
Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma, denies citizenship and many other basic human rights to the mainly Muslim Rohingya group. About 3,000 refugees and migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been rescued or swam ashore in Southeast Asian countries over the past 10 days after being abandoned at sea by human traffickers. Thousands more are thought to be adrift, with dwindling supplies.
Meanwhile, Myanmar said Friday its navy has rescued 208 migrants aboard two fishing trawlers off the western coast. According to the director of the president's office, Zaw Htay, the migrants are Bangladeshi men.
The boats were discovered Thursday off the coast of Rakhine state where thousands of Rohingya have been fleeing persecution. Officials in Myanmar say Bangladeshis have been posing as Rohingya so they can receive aid from the United Nations.
Authorities say the Myanmar navy will provide humanitarian assistance, conduct verification and return them to where they came from.
Meanwhile, Malaysia has ordered navy ships to begin searching for boat people in the country's first official move to save the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants believed to be adrift at sea. "We have to prevent loss of life," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on social media Thursday.
The move came a day after Malaysia and Indonesia relented to international pressure and agreed to provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children until a more permanent solution is found. Until then, the two nations, along with Thailand, had refused to assist the migrants.
The United States has been urging governments in the region to cooperate on search and rescue operations and sheltering thousands of vulnerable migrants.
Defense Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press Thursday that the Pentagon "is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously. We are preparing to stand up maritime aviation patrols throughout the region and working with local partners to help with this issue." He provided no further details.