Indonesia and Malaysia have said they will provide temporary shelter for some 7,000 migrants stranded at sea. The agreement is the first breakthrough in the humanitarian crisis confronting Southeast Asia.
Following a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart on Wednesday, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the two countries would scrap a policy of turning away migrants that triggered mounting international condemnation.
"The towing and the shooing [away of boats] is not going to happen," Aman told reporters.
Aman also said that the thousands of stranded migrants would be given temporary shelter, "provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community."
"In the meantime, Malaysia and Indonesia invite other countries in the region to join in this endeavor," he added.
Thailand's foreign minister, Tanasak Patimapragorn, also took part in the talks but did not give his country's approval to participate in the shelter program, saying he needed to present it to the rest of the Thai government.
"The international community will be responsible in providing Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand with necessary support, particularly financial assistance, to enable them to provide temporary shelter and humanitarian assistance to the irregular migrants currently at risk," read a statement released after the meeting.
Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also called on all nongovernmental organizations "of all races and religions" on Wednesday to step forward to volunteer to help the migrants. Most of the people on the boats belong to the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. Bangladeshis fleeing poverty are also among those stranded at sea.
"Even though they are a migrant community that is trying to enter the country illegally, and breaking immigration laws, their well-being should not be ignored," Hamidi said.
Over 300 migrants reached land earlier on Wednesday in Indonesia's Aceh province and Malaysia's Langkawi Island.
Another 3,000 have also swum to shore or been rescued off Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past 10 days. A Thai crackdown disrupting long-established smuggling routes prompted some of the gangs responsible for the migrants to abandon the migrants at sea.
Many of those stranded on the boats were recruited by traffickers in Bangladesh or Myanmar's Sittwe province with the promise of a safe passage to Malaysia and a job on arrival.
In reality, however, many of the victims are held for ransom, either on trawlers or in jungle camps in Thailand used to cross into neighboring Malaysia.
The victims then have to ask their relatives back home to give money to the smugglers in return for their release.
ksb/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP)