Bangkok, Thailand (BBN)-A regional conference is under way in the Thai capital Bangkok to discuss possible solutions to the South East Asia migrant crisis.
The talks include member states from the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) as well as representatives from the US and the UN, reports BBC.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have seen an exodus of people fleeing south by boat to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Thousands are thought to be stranded at sea in abandoned boats.
Most are economic migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar – also known as Burma.
In his opening remarks, Thailand’s Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn said “the influx of irregular migrants… has reached alarming levels” and an urgent and united response was needed.
Thailand has agreed to allow US surveillance planes to fly from its territory to find boats carrying migrants adrift in the ocean, according to Reuters news agency.
Mr Patimapragorn added that “the root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed”, in comments apparently directed at Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The BBC’s Jonathan Head in Bangkok says it was difficult to get Myanmar to participate in the talks, and the delegation has threatened to walk out if the word Rohingya is mentioned.
But the fact that Myanmar officials are in Bangkok engaging in multilateral discussions for the first time on this issue is a step forward, our correspondent adds.
Friday’s talks include representatives from 17 countries affected by “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean” – Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
The US, Japan and Switzerland have sent observers and there are officials from the UN refugee agency, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Organisation for Migration.
However, correspondents say many of those attending are not ministerial-level and the talks are unlikely to produce a binding agreement or even a plan of action.
Myanmar, which denies the Rohingya citizenship, making them effectively stateless, has played down any hopes of an agreement.
“We are going there only to discuss the regional crisis which all of the Asean countries are facing,” Htein Lin, head of Myanmar’s delegation, told Reuters news agency.
The crisis began earlier this year when Thailand cracked down on overland migrant routes, forcing people smugglers to use sea routes instead.
Most countries are unwilling take in the migrants, fearing that by accepting them they will encourage more to make the journey.
Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to stop towing boats out to sea and to give temporary shelter to those who have landed. Thailand has only said it will stop rejecting the boats.
ASIA’S MIGRANT CRISIS
Rohingya Muslims mainly live in Myanmar, where they have faced decades of persecution.
Rights groups say migrants feel they have “no choice” but to leave, paying people smugglers to help them.
The UN estimates more than 120,000 Rohingya have fled in the past three years.
Traffickers usually take the migrants by sea to Thailand then overland to Malaysia.
But Thailand recently began cracking down on the migrant routes, meaning traffickers are using sea routes instead.
WHY ARE SO MANY ROHINGYA STRANDED AT SEA?
The perilous journey of a migrant boat that made it
More than 3,000 migrants have landed in Indonesia and Malaysia in recent weeks but relief agencies say that almost as many are believed to be still adrift on abandoned boats.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said Australia would not resettle any of the migrants, adding: “We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats.”
Earlier, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama urged Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to “do something” to help the Rohingya.
The Dalai Lama told The Australian newspaper on Thursday he had discussed the Rohingya in meetings with Ms Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“She told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated,” he was quoted as saying. “But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”
The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Myanmar says many see Ms Suu Kyi’s silence as political pragmatism, as many in Myanmar are hostile to the Rohingya minority and elections are due to be held in November.