U.S. 'Prepared to Play a Leading Role' in Absorbing Muslim Refugees From Burma

By Susan Jones | May 21, 2015 | 7:52am EDT
Burma's Rohinga Muslims wait to be be rescued in the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Indonesia and Malaysia offered Wednesday to provide temporary shelter to thousands of migrants stranded at sea after weeks of saying they weren't welcome. (AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)

(CNSNews.com) - The United States is "prepared to play a leading role" in resettling Muslim refugees from Burma and Bangladesh, known as Rohinga, a State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday.

"We've already resettled, I think, more than 1,000 Rohinga, and we said we're prepared to take a leading role in any (United Nations)-organized effort," said spokeswoman Marie Harf. "It has to be a multicountry effort. We obviously can't take this all on ourselves. But we are prepared to play a leading role in this effort."

Harf spoke one day after the United Nations refugee agency warned that time was running out for thousands of people stranded at sea and urged governments in Southeast Asia "to urgently rescue and disembark these vulnerable people."

"We estimate that nearly 4,000 people (Rohinga) from Myanmar and Bangladesh remain stranded at sea with dwindling supplies on board," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said. "This includes some 2,000 men, women and children stranded on at least five boats near the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts for more than 40 days. Unconfirmed reports suggest the number could be higher," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Harf said the U.S. resettlement of 1,000 Rohinga in the current fiscal year "has been an ongoing process."

"I'm not sure there's been some new decision," she said.

Harf said the U.S. welcomes Wednesday's decision by Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand "to uphold their responsibilities under international law and provide humanitarian assistance and shelter to 7,000 vulnerable migrants stranded at sea in Southeast Asia." She said the United States supports them in those efforts.

"This will be an important subject at the May 29th conference hosted by Thailand in Bangkok. We believe all governments in the region with a stake in this issue should attend this conference where a high-level U.S. delegation will be present.

"The U.S. continues to urge countries in the region to take steps quickly to save the lives of migrants and asylum seekers now at sea and refrain from turning away any new boat arrivals."

Harf noted that Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken is now in the region. "He said in Jakarta earlier today that the U.S. stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today. We have a common obligation to answer the call of these migrants who have risked their lives at sea. And I note tomorrow he will be going to Burma."

As CNSNews.com reported on Wednesday, Burma’s president is about to sign a law giving the government far-reaching powers to determine the size of families and the spacing of children.

The new law, passed by Burma’s parliament last week, is the first of four controversial bills dealing with population control, religious conversions, interreligious marriage and polygamy.

Critics say the new laws threaten to target religious and ethnic minorities in the Buddhist-majority country, where minorities like Rohingya Muslims and Kachin and Karen Christians have long faced discrimination.

A reporter asked Harf on Wednesday if there has been any progress on improving the living conditions for the Rohinga in Burma (also known as Myanmar).

"Well, as I said, the deputy secretary will be there tomorrow, and this will be a key topic of conversation then," Harf replied. "He will urge the Burmese government to cooperate with Bangladesh, particularly to rescue and provide immediate relief to migrants adrift. And as we've said before, when it comes to some of these conditions, we remain concerned about the factors that drive people to risk their lives at sea, including the government of Burma's policy towards its Rohingya minority, and racially and religiously motivated discrimination."

Harf said she expects Blinken to "emphasize...the need for the Burmese government to assume responsibility for these longstanding issues in Rakhine state, including addressing the conditions facing the Rohingya population. And I think he will urge also some full and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance there as well."

"If there are more migrants, would the U.S. be willing to resettle some or provide military assets to help with the moving people around?" a reporter asked Harf.

"Yes, so we're actively considering our options right now on two pieces of that, though. I'll start with financial assistance. If the UNHCR and ION indicate the need for additional funds to assist governments to establish things like reception centers and ensure protection screening procedures, we'll consider those requests. We will encourage other governments to respond quickly and generously, and we'll be ready to respond to an appeal if and when they make one.

"In terms of resettling, I think the Malaysians and the Indonesians have requested some help resettling people. We're taking a careful look at the proposal. We're prepared to take a leading role in any UNHCR-organized multicountry effort to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.

"I'd note that more than 1,000 Rohinga have already been resettled to the U.S. so far this fiscal year. And we're also providing assistance, this year we provided nearly $109 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Burmese since the beginning, again, of this fiscal year."

The refugee crisis comes six months after Burma hosted a regional summit attended by President Obama, something that was seen as a further step towards Burma’s return to international respectability.

The U.S. and other Western governments have hailed the formerly military-ruled nation’s supposed transition to democracy, and Obama in late 2012 became the first American president to visit the Southeast Asian nation.

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