The United States said on Friday that thousands of vulnerable migrants adrift in Southeast Asian seas needed urgent rescue, as countries gathered in Bangkok to discuss the regional crisis.
More than 3,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar have landed in Indonesia and Malaysia since Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking gangs this month. About 2,600 are believed to be still adrift in boats, relief agencies have said.
"We have to save lives urgently," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard told reporters on her way into the meeting at a Bangkok hotel.
The gathering brings together 17 countries from across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and elsewhere in Asia, along with the United States, Switzerland and international organisations such as UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
"More than ever, we need a concerted effort by all countries concerned," Thailand's Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn told the meeting, in an opening address. "It needs both Thai and international cooperation to solve the problem comprehensively."
He summarised the gathering's three objectives as being: first, to provide humanitarian assistance; then to combat the long-term problems of people smuggling; and finally to address the root causes of the problem.
The Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, takes place against the grim backdrop of Malaysia's discovery of nearly 140 graves at 28 suspected people smuggling camps strung along its northern border. Thai authorities earlier found 36 bodies in abandoned camps on their side of the border, which led to the crackdown.
Some participants have cautioned that the meeting was unlikely to produce a binding agreement or plan of action.
Many attendees are not ministerial-level and may not have the heft that organisers in Bangkok hoped for.
According to the Thai Foreign Ministry, at least three of the countries central to the crisis were not sending ministers: Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Myanmar, the country of origin of many of the migrants, said on Thursday it had no plans to reach an agreement in Bangkok.
"We are going there only to discuss the regional crisis which all of the ASEAN countries are facing," its delegation head, Foreign Ministry Director-General Htein Lin, told Reuters.
The crisis erupted at the beginning of the month, when the Thai crackdown on people-smuggling camps along its border with Malaysia made it too risky for traffickers to land migrants, prompting them to abandon thousands in crowded boats at sea.
The United States has asked Thailand to fly surveillance flights from Thai bases to identify boats carrying migrants, Richard said, but has yet to get the nod from Thai authorities. Similar U.S. flights were operating from Malaysia, she said.
While some of the migrants are Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home, many are members of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim minority who live in apartheid-like conditions in the country's Rakhine state.
The United States and the United Nations have said the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ends discrimination against the Rohingya.
Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, rendering them effectively stateless, while denying it discriminates against them or that they are fleeing persecution. It does not call them Rohingya but refers to them as Bengalis, indicating they are from Bangladesh.