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Myanmar has said that one of its naval ships last week directed an overcrowded fishing boat with 727 migrants packed aboard to an unidentified "safe destination," where officials will verify passengers' identities, according to a government statement.
On Friday, authorities discovered the vessel filling with water as it was floating in the Andaman Sea. Initially, the country's information minister Ye Htut told Reuters the migrants were to be taken to Bangladeshi waters, but he later corrected this to say they would first be taken to the undisclosed safe place for identification purposes.
"The operation is starting. They will be taken to a safe destination," Ye Htut said.
While migrants have reportedly been given water and food, critiques say the move is perpetuating their plight. They are part of the 2,000 individuals that the United Nations estimates are currently stranded at sea, having been abandoned by human traffickers in recent weeks.
A majority of the asylum seekers are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and of Bangladeshi origin, fleeing persecution, poverty, and poor living conditions. The Rohingya minority group is essentially stateless, as the government of Myanmar refuses to recognize the approximately 1.1 million living in the country's Rakhine state or offer them citizenship or basic paperwork, often referring to them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Officials categorized the 727 migrants as Bengalis, which can refer to Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis, as authorities in Myanmar decline to use the term Rohingya.
In May, traffickers abandoned approximately 3,500 migrants who found their way to Malaysia and Indonesia. Thailand subsequently opened an investigation into military involvement in the scheme, launching a crackdown on human trafficking. The operation has netted politicians and military authorities, including an arrest warrant issued for a high ranking official, Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan, the Wall Street Journal reported. It was reported Tuesday that the 58-year-old three-star general will turn himself in.
Malaysia and Indonesia initially refused to accept the stranded asylum seekers, but ultimately Malaysia agreed on May 20 to temporarily take them in, on the condition that within a year they are re-settled by the international community.
Representatives from 17 countries gathered at a summit in Bangkok on Friday to discuss the humanitarian crisis unfolding off their coastlines, with the United States, Japan, and the United Nations also in attendance. Myanmar threatened to boycott the meeting if the summit was going to relate to the Rohingya, forcing many participants to skirt around the issue.
More than 100,000 Rohingya have fled in recent years. Speaking to reporters on Monday, President Barack Obama said that Myanmar has to stem discrimination against the group in order to successfully transition from military-rule to democracy, a move heavily supported by the US government. He said the US would join Indonesia and Malaysia by taking in some of the refugees.