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Summit looks for solutions to Asia's migrant crisis
03:52 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

UN: Myanmar must address the root causes of why people are leaving

Myanmar says issue shouldn't be politicized

Multilateral summit being held in Bangkok to address migrant crisis

CNN  — 

Myanmar must address the root causes of why people are leaving its shores, a top United Nations official said Friday at a summit to find a solution to a crisis that has seen thousands of migrants and refugees stranded at sea in Southeast Asia.

Volker Turk, assistant high commissioner for protection, at the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said that Myanmar has a responsibility to its people, and that the granting of citizenship to stateless people in the country is key.

In response, Myanmar’s delegate, Htin Lynn, Special Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggested that Turk was “politicizing” the issue by singling out Myanmar as a major cause of the crisis that has dragged on for weeks.

“My dear colleague at UNHCR needs to be better informed,” he said. “Finger pointing will not solve anything. It will take us nowhere.”

Turk was referring to the Rohingya Muslim minority, a group which endures persecution in Myanmar, and which makes up the majority of those who have fled the country in the past weeks.

Myanmar officials insist that Rohingya are not from Myanmar, and had previously refused to participate in the meetings if the term was used to describe the group.

“It is important to address the reasons that are behind these movements,” Turk told CNN on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Some of it is economic deprivation. Some of it is poverty. Some is is the fact that there is no legal status attached to them.

“Obviously all those issues will need to be addressed in order to make sure that people do not take dangerous sea voyages across the seas and see it is very crucial that we work on that collectively and constructively with all governments involved.”

Policy of abuse

Rights organization Human Rights Watch agreed that Myanmar must take steps to change its treatment of Rohingya minority Muslims.

“Myanmar is basically trying to deny responsibility for a rights abusing policy that has sent tens of thousands of people out into the region on boats in desperate situations,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy director, Asia division, told CNN at the meeting.

“What we’ve seen is ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya people in myanmar and the government has held no one accountable for that. Myanmar can contest this issue in the meeting, but the world community knows what’s happening in Arakan (Rakhine) State and it has to be addressed.”

Cooperation needed

Participants at the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean largely spoke of the necessity for regional and international cooperation in solving the migrant crisis.

The meeting in Bangkok brought together representatives from southeast Asian nations as well as Australia, New Zealand, Afghanistan and Iran, plus delegates from international organizations such as the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Thai Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn said that there were three main aims of the one-day meeting: To protect the migrants currently stranded at sea; to prevent and stop human trafficking and people smuggling; and to address the root causes behind irregular migration – to improve livelihoods for affected communities.

Shared responsibility

All countries, he said, those of origin, transit and destination, along with the international community, had a role to play in curbing irregular migration.

The five countries at the center of the migrant crisis – Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar – broadly agreed on the need for regional and international cooperation in reaching solutions for the problem, and agreed that the immediate need is to provide relief for the estimated thousands still stranded at sea.

There was general consensus, also, that the traffickers and people smugglers facilitating the crisis need to be stopped, and the root causes of irregular migration in the region should be addressed.

Perfect storm of migration

William Lacy Swing, Director General of the IOM, said that the region was experiencing a “perfect storm” of migration and told the meeting that his organization advocated a holistic, comprehensive policy.

He urged that the “narrative” of migrants move from “toxic and negative to positive,” that migration was “inevitable, necessary and desirable,” and that many nations, including the U.S., were “built on backs of migrants and with the minds of migrants.”

According to the IOM, an estimated 25,000 Southeast Asian migrants took to the seas in the first three months of 2015.

The UNHCR was encouraged by cooperation in the lead up to the meeting, Turk told the delegates.

At a meeting last week, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to temporarily accept thousands of migrants, as long as the international community helps to resettle them within one year.

However, the realities of the situation meant that it was “disingenuous” to suggest there is a simple solution to what is a complex problem, Turk said.

“Some can go back… others cannot at this point in time.”

Dalai Lama: Support minority Muslims

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has called upon Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to take an active role in the crisis by standing up for the persecuted Rohingya minority, the Australian newspaper reports.

As demonstrations in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, protested the international community’s perceived bias in favor of the Rohingya minority, the exiled spiritual leader appealed to Burmese Buddhists to “remember the face of the Buddha.”

He called on the politician, held until recently under house arrest, to use her influence to help improve the situation of the Rohingya minority.

“It’s very sad. In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something,” he said.

“I mentioned about this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated.

“But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

CNN’s Kocha Olarn in Bangkok, and Elizabeth Joesph in Hong Kong, contributed to this report.