Philippines to accept refugees stuck at sea after being rejected across south-east Asia

Philippines raises hopes of a breakthrough in the south-east Asian migrant crisis, saying it will accept boat people rejected by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia

Boat people

12:50PM BST 19 May 2015

The Philippines has offered refuge to the thousands of migrants who have been stranded for months on boats after being repeatedly rejected and towed back to sea by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Marking a possible breakthrough in a crisis that has left thousands at risk of starvation on boats labelled “floating coffins” by the United Nations, Benigno Aquino, the president of the Philippines, said his nation was a signatory to the UN’s refugee convention and was therefore obliged to save the lives of the migrants.

“As the only predominantly Catholic nation in south-east Asia, it is our duty to provide succour to those in need,” said Herminio Coloma, the president’s spokesman.

“The Philippines has extended humanitarian assistance to ‘boat people’ and had even established a processing centre for Vietnamese travellers in the 70s. We shall continue to do our share in saving lives under existing and long-standing mechanisms pursuant to our commitments under the [UN] convention.”

The decision by the Philippines has raised hopes that the region would finally move closer to resolving the fates of an estimated 8,000 people who have been adrift for months with little or no supplies of food and water.

But the voyage to the Philippines would be long and hazardous for the migrants, many of whom are several thousand miles away in the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca.

Almost 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued by fishermen off Indonesia and Malaysia in the past week.

Survivors have given grim accounts of people killing each other at sea over dwindling food supplies and of passengers starving to death and being thrown overboard.

“These boat people have been at sea for weeks and months, without adequate food or any sort of medical care, and they are in a greatly weakened state,” Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch, told AFP.

Many of the migrants are oppressed Rohingya Muslims from Burma who have been described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.

Thailand is set to host talks on May 29 for 15 countries to discuss the crisis. But Burma has threatened to boycott, saying it is not prepared to discuss its treatment of the Rohingya population, to whom it does not grant citizenship.

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