Manila, The Philippines – Thousands of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh are still lost at sea and waiting to be rescued in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have said.
In a joint press conference in the Philippine capital Manila on Wednesday, representatives of the two organisations also appealed for $26m in aid for the rescue, resettlement, or return of as many as 10,000 people affected by the migrant crisis.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
UNHCR representative to the Philippines Bernard Kerblat said at least 2,621 migrants are believed to be drifting in small “rickety boats” at sea – many near the coast of Malaysia and off the coast of Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The real number, however, could be much higher, with the UNHCR saying its estimates were “very, very conservative”.
“Every hour which passes by, there are people in the high seas who need to be saved,” Kerblat said.
“As we speak, there are still thousands of men, women, children, elderly adrift in vessels most likely without fuel, most likely without water, most likely without food, who need to be brought to shore.”
Many of the migrants are Rohingya – a Muslim minority from Myanmar that has long complained of discrimination and persecution.
As of Wednesday morning, the 27th day since the mass sea migration ignited a crisis, Kerblat said at least 3,302 have been rescued off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Another 1,013 people have been returned to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
He said there have been no additional boat movements reported throughout the region, nor boats carrying migrants being turned away.
But the UNHCR also reported finding mass graves with more than 100 bodies and dozens of human smuggling camps in Malaysia, near the border with Thailand.
Marco Boasso, IOM chief of Mission in the Philippines, called on countries in the Southeast Asian region to have a “coordinated and consistent approach” to address the crisis.
Boasso said that the $26m aid appeal is essential to buy medicine and hire doctors, who will help deal with the medical needs of the migrants.
On Friday, Thailand will convene a meeting of 19 countries mostly from the Asia-Pacific region, to discuss the ongoing crisis. The US and Switzerland are also joining the meeting as “invited as observers”.
Kerblat said the May 29 meeting is “extremely important” to also address the problem of human smuggling and trafficking, which also paved the way for the current crisis to erupt.
Meanwhile, Kerblat praised the Philippines for declaring that it will not turn away Rohingya refugees if they reach the country.
Even before the crisis has started, Kerblat said that as early as two years ago, the Philippines already admitted dozens of Rohingyas, who were in an “extremely vulnerable situation”.
The refugees stayed in the Philippines for as long as five months, and were later sent to a third country for formal resettlement.
“Through this act, the Philippines has helped dozens of Rohingyas in the past,” Kerblat said.
Follow Ted Regencia on Twitter: @tedregencia