A boat carrying more than 700 migrants and refugees is being escorted to a "safe" location by Myanmar's navy, the country's information minister said. Thousands of people are believed stranded in Southeast Asian seas.
Speaking to news agency Reuters on Tuesday, Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut said the fishing boat with 727 people on board was being escorted to an undisclosed location, where their identities would be verified.
"The operation is starting. They will be taken to a safe destination," Ye Htut told Reuters by phone, refusing to disclose that location due to "security and safety concerns." Reuters said Ye Htut was correcting an earlier comment he made to the same news organization, suggesting that they were headed for the waters of Bangladesh.
The fishing boat carrying the migrants and refugees (pictured above on May 31) had been taking on water when it was found in the Andaman Sea off southern Myanmar on Friday. Myanmar's navy had given those on board food and water, Ye Htut said. He did not say where they were from.
Migrant and refugee crisis
The region is in the middle of a mass migration crisis, with thousands of people believed to have been abandoned at sea on crowded and rickety boats after being abandoned by human traffickers following a crackdown by Thai authorities in early May.
About 3,500 have landed on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil in recent weeks but the United Nations estimates about 2,000 could still be at sea. Most of them are Rohingya Muslims - a persecuted minority of more than a million living in Rakhine state of mainly Buddhist Myanmar - or economic migrants from Bangladesh.
Myanmar's government uses the term "Bengalis" to refer to both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, saying the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Myanmar's neighbor to the west and refusing to grant them citizenship.
At a regional meeting on the people smuggling crisis held on May 29, Myanmar took exception to being "singled out" as the cause of the problem.
US President Barack Obama on Monday said Myanmar needed to end discrimination against Rohingyas as part of its transition from military rule to democracy.
se/msh (Reuters, dpa, AFP)