BANGKOK — Thailand has stopped short of promising refuge to migrants stranded in its waters, unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, whose governments agreed today to take in the boat people after days of pushing them back to sea.
Thailand’s Foreign Minister was conspicuously absent from a press conference that followed a meeting between representatives from the three countries in Putrajaya this morning, during which ministers from Malaysia and Indonesia said their governments would provide temporary shelter to the migrants if the international community could facilitate resettlement within a year.
Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Tanasak Patimapragorn, reportedly said he needed to consult domestic laws before Thailand could commit to the initiative.
Hours later, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign affairs released a statement about the meeting that did not mention any plans to house the migrants, or explain Gen. Tanasak’s absence from the press conference.
The statement’s only concrete promise was that Thailand will “will not push back migrants stranded in the Thai territorial water.”
Gen. Tanasak’s absence from the press conference also perplexed many veteran journalists in the region.
“I can never remember seeing something like this in 20 years of reporting ASEAN,” BBC’s Jonathan Head wrote of a photo showing Gen. Tanasak's empty podium. “Appearance usually matters so much.”
The boat people are primarily Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, and Rohingya Muslims escaping ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar. Most are seeking to settle in Muslim-majority Malaysia or Indonesia, though Thailand has traditionally been used as a key transit country for human smugglers and traffickers.
The surge of stranded migrants off shore – estimated to be as many as 8,000 – was triggered in part by Thailand's clampdown on smuggling operations in the south earlier this month. After sweeping the region, Thai police have found several mass graves and jungle camps used by traffickers to detain and abuse migrants until their relatives send hefty ransom sums.
Over the past week, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have taken turns towing the overcrowded boats of hungry migrants out of their territorial waters, attracting heavy criticism from the UN and other human rights groups.
The director of the International Organization for Migration commended "the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular" today for agreeing to shelter the migrants, but reiterated the urgent need to mount a search-and-rescue mission for the boats still adrift at sea.
“I applaud this humanitarian response by these ASEAN nations and urge an immediate response at sea to now rescue and bring to shore these suffering migrants, many of whom are women and children who have been in life threatening conditions without water or food for days," said IOM director William Swing.
Thai authorities have said the migrants are welcome to disembark on Thai shores, but will be prosecuted for illegal entry into the Kingdom. However, a 23-year-old Rohingya whose boat was rescued by Indonesian fishermen this morning told AP the Thai navy towed his ship out to sea after providing food and water, and then threatened to "shoot" if the migrants returned.
Thailand is holding a international summit to discuss the humanitarian crisis on 29 May.