Myanmar to deport migrants as UN chief urges further rescues

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YANGON: A group of migrants recently rescued by Myanmar will be deported to Bangladesh, officials confirmed Saturday, as the United Nations chief called on regional nations to prioritise saving the lives of those still stranded at sea.

Southeast Asia is currently battling an exodus of boat people fleeing persecution and poverty, with up to 2,000 vulnerable migrants thought to be stranded in the Bay of Bengal, many at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers.

Most are Muslim Rohingyas from the western Rakhine state in Myanmar, where they are not recognised as citizens and instead referred to as “Bengalis” or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Bangladeshis, meanwhile, are also trying to escape grinding poverty.

More than 3,500 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh since a Thai crackdown in early May on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.

Myanmar has faced increasing international pressure to stem the deluge from its shores and deliver urgent humanitarian relief to thousands still trapped at sea.

On Friday the country´s navy said it had carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat when scores of bare-chested men were found crammed into the hull of a wooden fishing vessel and taken to shore.

Myanmar officials say all 208 men are from Bangladesh and will soon be returned there. AFP wasn´t able to independently verify where the migrants were from.

“We are giving humanitarian assistance to them. After that we will deport them back to the relative country,” Zaw Htay, director of the presidential office, told AFP on Saturday.

“We have made contact with Bangladeshi border officials on the ground regarding the arrived persons,” he added.

– ´Save lives´ –

The rescue by the Myanmar navy comes as fears grow for migrants still stuck at sea at a time when the dry winter months are about to give way to the regional monsoon.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said finding and saving the lives of those migrants should be a “top priority”.

Speaking during a visit to Hanoi, he called on regional nations to tackle the “root causes” of the current exodus at an upcoming conference in Thailand later this month.

“But when people are drifting on the sea, how we can search and rescue them and provide life saving humanitarian assistance, that is a top priority at this time,” he said.

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