PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia >> In a major diplomatic breakthrough that could ease Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia offered Wednesday to temporarily take in thousands of people who have been stranded at sea but appealed for international help, saying the crisis is a global, not regional, problem.
The reversal in their positions, after weeks of saying the migrants were not welcome, came as more than 430 weak, hungry people were rescued — not by navies patrolling the waters but by a flotilla of Indonesian fishermen who brought them ashore in the eastern province of Aceh.
One of the fishermen who led the rescue effort said that when he spotted the migrants’ green wooden trawler and saw the people on board screaming for help, he began to weep.
“As we came close, I was shocked. I saw them crammed onto the boat. It left me speechless and I broke down in tears as I watched them screaming, waving their hands and clothes,” said 40-year-old Razali Puteh. People from the boat began jumping into the water trying to reach him, but the fisherman told them to stay put and then returned with other fishing boats.
“I could not let them die, because they are also human beings. Just like me,” Puteh said. “I am grateful to have saved hundreds of lives.”
In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 people — Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis attempting to escape poverty — have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of Southeast Asian countries better known for their white-sand beaches. Aid groups estimate that thousands more are stranded at sea following a crackdown on human traffickers that prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.
The mounting crisis prompted Malaysia to call an emergency meeting with the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Thailand on Wednesday. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation grouping of Southeast Asian countries known as ASEAN.
“This is not an ASEAN problem,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said after the meeting. “This is a problem for the international community.”
Part of the crisis stemmed from the stance of ASEAN nations, which until now was to push boats away and not allow migrants to reach their shores, fearing that allowing a few to come in would lead to an unstoppable flow.
On Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia “agreed to offer temporary shelter provided that the settlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community,” according to a joint statement.
Speaking to reporters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Anifah said the two countries would not wait for international support but would start giving migrants shelter “immediately.”
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said his government was ready to shelter Rohingya for one year, while the Bangladeshis would be sent back home. “A year is (the) maximum,” he said, “but there should International cooperation.”
Thailand has said it cannot afford to take more migrants because it is already overburdened by tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar. Its Foreign Ministry announced it has agreed to provide humanitarian assistance and will not “push back migrants stranded in the Thai territorial water.” It remained unclear, however, how it would deal with such people, or where the Rohingya could permanently settle.
The U.N. says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar recognizes them as citizens. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even the name Rohingya is taboo. Myanmar officials refer to the group as “Bengalis” and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.
Over the last few years, Myanmar’s Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.
The U.N. refugee agency believes there are some 4,000 still at sea, although some activists initially put the number at 6,000.
Aid agencies praised Wednesday’s breakthrough but time is running out, said Joe Lowry, a regional spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
“It’s extremely good news coming out of Malaysia,” he said. “The problem is that, so far there is no agreement on search and rescue and these boats have got to be found. There’s a huge body of water and only a small number of boats, and the more time that goes on … the more desperate their conditions are going to become.”
In another potential breakthrough Wednesday, Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw indicated his country would likely join regional talks in Bangkok next week. “We all have to sit down and we all have to consider how to tackle this problem together,” he told reporters in Bangkok after meeting his Thai counterpart.
The migrants brought ashore Wednesday in Indonesia were rescued by more than a dozen fishing boats, said Herman Sulaiman from East Aceh district’s Search and Rescue Agency. It was unclear if all the migrants had been on one vessel or had come from several.
An initial batch of 102 people was the first brought to shore in the Aceh village of Simpang Tiga.
“They were suffering from dehydration, they are weak and starving,” said Khairul Nove, head of the Langsa Search and Rescue Agency in Aceh province. Among the 102 were 26 women and 31 children, he said.
One of the migrants, Ubaydul Haque, 30, said the ship’s engine had failed and the captain fled, and that they were at sea for four months before the Indonesian fishermen found them.
“We ran out of food, we wanted to enter Malaysia but we were not allowed,” he said.
Most of the migrants are believed to be victims of human traffickers, who recruit them in Myanmar’s Sittwe province and in Bangladesh with promises of safe passage to Malaysia and jobs once they land there, but aid groups say many are held instead for ransom on boats or in jungle camps in southern Thailand.
Gade reported from Simpang Tiga, Indonesia. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Todd Pitman in Bangkok, Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Matthew Pennington in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.