The Philippines has signalled it is ready to take in thousands of migrants who are stranded on Asia’s seas, the first country to offer shelter after its south-east Asian neighbours blocked them from entering.
Manila, a signatory to the United Nation’s refugee convention, said it would help as it denied a local report claiming that the Philippines planned to push back boats carrying some 8,000 people fleeing persecution in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh.
“The Philippines has extended humanitarian assistance to … ‘boat people’ and had even established a processing centre for Vietnamese travellers in the 70s,” said Herminio Coloma, a spokesman for the president, Benigno Aquino.
“We shall continue to do our share in saving lives under existing and long-standing mechanisms pursuant to our commitments under the [UN] convention.”
It would be a long and unlikely journey for the migrants – who are believed to be in the region of the Andaman Sea – to make it to the Philippines on their rickety boats with little food and fuel.
However, the statement raised hopes for a breakthrough in the crisis in which nearly 3,000 refugees and migrants from Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority group and Bangladesh were rescued off Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
“It is a hopeful sign. We hope the governments in the region would lift their game as well,” said an International Organisation for Migration (IOM) spokesman, Joe Lowry.
“We have been saying for 10 days now [that the governments should allow migrants to land]. We don’t know how many people have perished now.”
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have turned away boats, despite the UN’s warning against “floating coffins” in the region’s seas.
And the fate of about 300 people aboard a boat that was pushed backwards and forward between Malaysia and Thai waters last week is still unknown. The boat has not been heard for at least three days now, said Lowry.
Malaysia and Indonesian coastguards could not be reached for immediate comments.
Meanwhile Burma’s main opposition party, led by the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has finally broke silence on the issue of the Rohingya saying the Muslims fleeing dire conditions in Burmaare entitled to “human rights”.
“If they are not accepted [as citizens], they cannot just be sent on to rivers; can’t be pushed out to sea,” said Nyan Win, a spokesman from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party on Monday.
“They are humans. I just see them as humans who are entitled to human rights.”
Malaysia’s foreign affairs minister will meet his counterparts from Indonesia and Thailand in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to discuss the migrant crisis, ahead of a regional meeting in Bangkok on 29 May.
The secretary-general’s office of the regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), declined to comment. A spokeswoman said the office was “not privy” to ongoing discussions among member states.