Four Malaysian navy ships began searching the seas for stranded boat people Thursday in the first official rescue operation since desperate migrants started washing onto Southeast Asia’s shores, and a formerly reluctant Myanmar agreed to attend a regional meeting aimed at easing the crisis.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis are believed to be trapped on boats with little food or water — some after being pushed back by the navies of at least three countries — and the international community has warned that time to save them is running out.
The announcement Thursday by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was the latest in a series of breakthroughs, including an offer by his country and Indonesia to provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children until a more permanent solution is found.
He said he had ordered his navy and coast guard to conduct search-and-rescue efforts for other boats.
“We have to prevent loss of life,” he tweeted.
Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said four vessels had been deployed, and three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.
Myanmar, which earlier hinted it would skip a regional meeting in Thailand next week bringing together representatives of more than a dozen nations, changed course Thursday, saying it would attend.
Around half the migrants on the boats are Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing persecution and violence in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
“We are ready to cooperate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds,” said Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office.
The decision was made after an invitation letter arrived, he said, noting it did not imply Myanmar was solely responsible for the crisis or use the word Rohingya, a term that is not recognized by his government.
Myanmar officials refer to members of the religious minority as “Bengalis,” implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
The U.N. says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.
Over the past few years, Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.
Since the crisis stated unfolding three weeks ago, around 3,000 migrants have washed to shore. The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea.
After pushing back several vessels, Indonesia and Malaysia announced Wednesday they would offer temporary shelter to incoming migrants if the international community helps resettle them within a year.
They said it was a global, not regional, problem.
The United States responded quickly, saying it was prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort organized by the U.N. refugee agency to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.
The tiny African country of Gambia has also said it is willing to take in Rohingya refugees. “As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is (our) sacred duty to help,” the presidency said in a statement.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, currently visiting Southeast Asia, met on Thursday with senior Myanmar government officials and “shared the U.S. government’s concerns about the migrant crisis in the region and urged the Myanmar government to work with regional partners to address the issue,” the U.S. Embassy said on its Facebook page.