Myanmar`s navy is escorting a boat crammed with 727 stranded migrants to a “safe” location where officials will verify their identities before taking any further action, the country`s information minister said on Tuesday.
Correcting an earlier comment that the navy was taking the converted fishing boat to the waters of neighbouring Bangladesh, Ye Htut said the migrants were headed to an undisclosed but safe area and had been provided with food and water.
“The operation is starting. They will be taken to a safe destination,” Ye Htut told Reuters by telephone. He would not disclose that location due to “security and safety concerns”.
The migrants were found drifting in the Andaman Sea on Friday in an overloaded fishing boat that was taking on water.
They are the among an estimated 2,000 people the United Nations said could still be at sea after being abandoned by people smuggling gangs since a crackdown started last month in Thailand.
Myanmar`s government initially labelled the migrants “Bengalis”, a term it applies to both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, a mostly stateless Muslim minority of about 1.1 million living in Myanmar`s Rakhine state.
Myanmar`s government refuses to refer to the Rohingyas by name and insists most are illegal Bangladeshi migrants. They live in apartheid-like conditions and are deeply resented by Rakhine`s Buddhist majority.
The Rohingya exodus is a sensitive issue for Myanmar, which is under international pressure to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas but risks outrage at home if is seen as recognising them among its dozens of ethnicities.
US President Barack Obama on Monday said Myanmar needed to end discrimination against Rohingyas in order to make its fledgling democracy a success.
A navy officer who declined to be named said that some migrants aboard the crowded boat could speak a dialect that is used in Rakhine state but not widely spoken in Bangladesh.
The seaborne exodus has mushroomed into a regional crisis for which Myanmar insists it is not to blame. Seventeen countries were represented at a meeting in Bangkok last week after 4,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi “boat people” landed on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks.
Scott Busby, the US Deputy Assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, on Tuesday welcomed an agreement between affected countries to address “root causes” of the exodus, but said Myanmar should make a start by granting Rohingyas citizenship.
“Many people have been there for a very long period of time, they need access to citizenship,” he told reporters in Cambodia.