Rohingya migrants sit in their boat as they are towed closer to land by Acehnese fishermen, off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in Indonesia's East Aceh district of Aceh province, before being rescued on May 20, 2015. (Photo by Januar / AFP)
Malaysia and Indonesia said Wednesday they would no longer turn away boatpeople, a breakthrough in the region's migrant crisis that came just hours after hundreds more starving people were rescued at sea.
Earlier, Myanmar, whose policies toward its ethnic Rohingya minority are widely blamed for fuelling the human flow, also softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian aid to stricken migrants.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand had sparked growing international outrage for driving off boats overloaded with exhausted and dying Rohingya, as well as Bangladeshis.
But Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, in a joint press appearance with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, announced that "the towing and the shooing (away of boats) is not going to happen" any more.
"We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," Anifah said.
The pair spoke after talks with Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn.
Thailand did not sign on to the offer, however. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha later told reporters in Bangkok that his government was still considering the plans.
Nearly 3,000 boatpeople have swum to shore or been rescued off the three countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos, with some of the syndicates involved abandoning their helpless human cargo at sea.
Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimates that about 7,000 people are still stranded at sea.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) said Wednesday's announcement was "an important initial step in the search for solutions to this issue, and vital for the purpose of saving lives".
In a statement, it called for migrants to be brought ashore "without delay" and for countries in the region to address the "root causes" of the large-scale migration.
Joe Lowry, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body, called the move "brave and timely".
Myanmar softens line
In the latest drama involving incoming migrants, 433 starving people were rescued from their rickety boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels earlier Wednesday, officials and fisherman said.
AFP journalists confirmed it was the same boat that had earlier bounced between Thailand and Malaysia in recent days as images of its emaciated Rohingya passengers -- shot by AFP and other media -- shocked observers worldwide.
Indonesian fishermen Muchtar Ali said he broke down in tears when he saw the passengers.
"I was speechless. Looking at these people, me and my friends cried because they looked so hungry, so skinny," he told AFP.
A local official said 70 children were among those saved -- including some babies -- and 70 women.
Myanmar state media on Wednesday quoted a foreign ministry statement as saying the government "shares concerns" expressed by the international community and is "ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea".
That marked the most conciliatory statement yet from Myanmar's Buddhist-dominated government, which considers the Muslim Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and had earlier hit back at calls for it to help address the situation.
Rohingya flee western Myanmar by the thousands annually to escape years of violence and discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist majority.
Most head for Muslim-majority Malaysia.
US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a stop in Jakarta, said he would push Myanmar to improve conditions for Rohingya when he visits the country on Thursday.
"The only sustainable solution to the problem is changing the conditions that led (Rohingya) to put their lives at risk in the first place, and that is one of the things that we will be talking about tomorrow with the government of Myanmar," he said.
The Bangladeshi migrants are largely seeking to escape poverty at home.
The UNHCR believes at least 2,000 migrants may be stranded on boats off the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts, held in horrific conditions for weeks by traffickers who are demanding that passengers pay to be released, a spokeswoman said.
Anifah and Marsudi said the reasons behind the migrant exodus must be addressed but did not single out any country.
They recommended convening an emergency meeting of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Malaysia currently chairs. Myanmar also is a member. AFP