Thailand’s Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn warned on Friday that the number of migrants reaching the shores of Southeast Asian countries had reached an “alarming level,” and called for the region’s governments to address the root cause of the crisis.
Speaking at a summit in Bangkok, attended by representatives from 17 countries, including those from the ASEAN regional bloc, as well as the United States and the United Nations, Thanasak said in his opening remarks that "no country can solve this problem alone."
"The influx of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an alarming level," Thanasak said. “While we are trying to help those in need, we must stop the outflow of irregular migrants and combat transnational crime and destroy their networks."
The meeting was called after Southeast Asian governments struggled in the last few weeks to deal with thousands of displaced refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that more than 3,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants were adrift in the Andaman Sea.
The migrants from Bangladesh are fleeing poverty at home in hopes of finding better jobs in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. The majority of the migrants, however, are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who fled after the majority-Buddhist country revoked their citizenship rights and confined over 100,000 in camps. Myanmar’s policies, which have prompted a mass exodus of Rohingya migrants, has faced international condemnation.
While people smuggling has been taking place in the region for decades, the issue came to light last month when Thailand launched an anti-human trafficking crackdown that prompted smugglers to abandon their boats, leaving thousands of migrants stranded at sea, many for months at a time. The crisis deepened after migrants reported starvation, disease and rampant violence aboard the packed vessels.
Thailand also announced at the meeting that it would allow the U.S. to fly surveillance planes through the region to help identify migrant boats in the area. "Yes, we are permitting it, it is starting today," Thanasak said, according to U.K.-based news website ITV News.
The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Director-General William Swing said on Thursday that getting the countries to talk was a major step in the right direction, and added that Myanmar had to actively participate to solve the brewing crisis. "I think Myanmar has to be engaged in any solution involving any of the groups, absolutely," he said, according to the Associated Press.
The IOM and other international groups including the U.N. have previously condemned regional governments for their lack of response to the crisis after several countries turned away migrant boats. The IOM called their actions a game of “maritime ping-pong” that risked thousands of lives.
However, some progress has been made since then. Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to provide one-year shelter to Rohingya migrants. Thailand has offered humanitarian aid, but says that it is already holding too many migrants to offer more shelter.