MYANMAR, June 3- More than 700 migrants found adrift on a fishing boat six days ago disembarked in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine Wednesday as the US warned it was monitoring their fate “very closely”.
Before they were intercepted the migrants had been heading south towards Malaysia, which along with Indonesia and Thailand has seen 3,500 hungry people arrive in recent weeks in a migrant crisis that erupted after a crackdown on people smuggling.
Most were members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority fleeing persecution in Rakhine, or economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya have no citizenship and are considered by the government to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s navy has found hundreds more migrants in its own waters and appears determined to foist them off onto Bangladesh, although officials there are resisting mass deportations across the frontier.
Myanmar said the 727 passengers found aboard the vessel last Friday were “Bengalis” — the term it uses to describe its Rohingya — and initially threatened to send them across the border before the navy escorted them towards Rakhine.
“They arrived this morning at around 9.30am” in Maungdaw district, a local government official, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
Authorities planned to move them to the nearby village of Taungpyo Letwe close to the Bangladesh border, where an earlier group of 200 migrants rescued off Myanmar are being held while their nationalities are verified.
Another unnamed official in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe said that group of 200 migrants would be sent to Bangladesh in coming days.
“Bangladesh agreed today to accept them,” the official said.
But a spokesman for Bangladesh’s border guards told AFP Myanmar officials had yet to definitively show they were Bangladeshis, adding that they had only received an “incomplete list” of passengers.
“Our policy is we are ready to take the migrants back as long as there is substantial proof that they are our citizens,” Major Abu Russell Siddiqui said.
“We’ll take them back once it is verified that they are Bangladeshis,” he added.
– US watching –
Apart from migrants who have reached land the UN’s refugee agency estimates around 2,000 others are still trapped at sea, heaping pressure on both Myanmar and Bangladesh to take them back and improve living conditions to stem the outflow.
On Wednesday US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, who has visited camps housing Rohingya refugees in western Indonesia in recent days, said Myanmar was “responsible for what happens to people” on the boat which came ashore Wednesday.
“We are following this very closely because we want to make sure any of the innocent people on the boat get proper treatment and are handled humanely,” she told reporters in Jakarta.
She added that the US wanted the Rohingya treated as citizens of Myanmar, and would continue pressuring the government in Naypyidaw as it continues its transition to democracy and prepares for elections later this year.
The plight of the Muslim group has come under scrutiny as the migrant crisis has unfurled in Southeast Asia after a Thai crackdown on people-smuggling threw the multi-million dollar industry into disarray, leading gangmasters to abandon human cargos on land and at sea.
US President Barack Obama has joined calls for Myanmar to end discrimination against the Rohingya.
When pressed on whether the US would impose sanctions should Myanmar fail to treat the minority population humanely, Richard said they remained an option but were not being actively considered at this stage.
“In the diplomatic toolbox, sanctions is one of the options,” she said.
The Rohingya flee Rakhine in droves each year to escape poverty and persecution in a region where their movements are controlled and they lack access to jobs or basic services.
Bangladeshi migrants have also taken the perilous sea crossing in recent years with many searching for better jobs in Malaysia, where the boats are usually bound.