Malaysia has ordered navy ships to begin searching for boat people in the first official move to save the thousands of persecuted Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshi economic 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 comes 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 breakthrough was announced Wednesday following a meeting between the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – countries that had expressed a reluctance to assist the migrants.
Under the deal, Malaysia and Indonesia will "continue to provide humanitarian assistance" to the estimated 7,000 stranded migrants, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said.
"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," he added.
The foreign minister also called on other nations and NGOs to assist in the mission.
Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson said the agreement "should mark the end of the region's push back policies" under which Southeast Asian governments forced the migrant boats back to sea.
But Robertson said it was unfortunate Thailand did not agree to also provide shelter for the boat people. "Let's hope that this failure of Thai leadership is temporary, and that Bangkok recognizes that it should urgently revamp its stance and join with Indonesia and Malaysia to save these people on the high seas and provide them with humanitarian shelter and assistance ashore," he said.
Nearly 3,000 so-called boat people have been rescued or made their way to shores of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. But rights groups warn thousands more are likely stranded and running out of supplies.
The crisis began earlier this month when Thailand disrupted longstanding human trafficking networks that targeted Rohingya. The people smugglers fled, leaving thousands of boat people adrift at sea.
Myanmar, which has received international criticism for its role in Southeast Asia's migrant crisis, said earlier Wednesday it is also ready to help the stranded boat people.
A Foreign Ministry statement said Myanmar is deeply concerned "with the sufferings and life-threatening fate" of the boat people, mostly minority Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
"Myanmar stands ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea," said the statement, which added "serious efforts" are being taken to prevent human trafficking and illegal migration, including regular air force and navy patrols.
More than 400 migrants, many of whom were weak and starving, were rescued Wednesday by local fishermen and taken to shore in the eastern province of Aceh, according to officials.
Indonesia is now sheltering over 1,500 boat people, and its patience had been appearing to wear out. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Tuesday the country has done "more than it should" to help the migrants and said a regional solution is needed.
The U.N. on Tuesday directly appealed to the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to allow the refugees to disembark, saying the first priority must be "saving lives, protecting rights, and respecting human dignity."
"We are deeply concerned at reports that boats full of vulnerable women, men and children are unable to land and are stranded at sea without access to urgently needed food, water, and medical assistance," a joint statement by a coalition of U.N. agencies said.
Fear of being overwhelmed
The countries had said they are fearful their shores will be overwhelmed if the refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh are allowed to disembark.
The boat people are mainly members of the stateless Rohingya minority group. The mostly Muslim Rohingya are denied citizenship and other basic rights in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
Their fate has worsened since an outbreak of religious violence in 2013, which left over 200 Rohingya dead. Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to live in filthy, overcrowded, prison-like camps in western Rakhine state.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, does not recognize the minority group, and refrains from even referring to them as Rohingya. Instead, it insists on calling them "Bengalis," and views them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The U.N. has repeatedly called for Myanmar to provide full citizenship and other rights to the Rohingya. Its statement on Tuesday called for efforts to be redoubled to "address 'push factors' and the root causes of refugee and migrant flows, including discrimination, deprivation, persecution and violations of human rights."