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UN urges strengthening of rescue efforts for Asian refugees at sea

The United Nations has urged Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to strengthen their search and rescue operations in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Around 4,000 people remain stranded at sea there.

Several UN agencies on Tuesday urged the three Southeast Asian nations to do more to save the lives of nearly 4,000 boatpeople from Myanmar and Bangladesh still in distress at sea.

In a statement, the UN refugee and human rights agencies as well as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the three countries and the 10-nation ASEAN regional bloc should "make saving lives the top priority by ... significantly strengthening search and rescue operations" and "facilitate safe disembarkation."

It said the migrants should be housed in humane conditions, given medical care and then individually screened to determine whether they needed protection as refugees, asylum seekers, stateless people or victims of trafficking.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have drawn international condemnation for turning away boats carrying Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, who are now stranded at sea with little food and nowhere to go. The UN says more than 88,000 migrants have taken to the sea since 2014, with 25,000 arriving in the first quarter of this year alone.

Last week, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the flow of migrants would continue until Myanmar ended discrimination against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

'Global problem'

But Indonesia insisted on Tuesday that it had "given more than it should" to help hundreds of refugees, according to Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. "This irregular migration is not the problem of one or two nations. This is a regional problem which also happens in other places. This is also a global problem," Marsudi told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has offered to help, saying it had the "commitment and the obligation to extend humanitarian assistance to these asylum seekers," Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose told ANC television, without giving details.

Marsudi said Indonesia has sheltered 1,346 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who washed onto the Aceh and North Sumatra provinces last week.

The leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are to meet Wednesday to discuss the situation.

ng/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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