Friday, February 6, 2009

Indonesia backtracks on Burmese migrants

(The Age) -Indonesia says it will consider granting refugee status to hundreds of Muslim migrants from Burma allegedly abused and dumped at sea by Thai security forces.

In an about-turn from the government's previous line that the Rohingya men were economic migrants, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda admitted they could have claims to refugee protection.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) would be allowed access to the roughly 400 men who were rescued in desperate conditions off northern Sumatra in two boats in recent weeks, he said, reversing an earlier refusal.

"We did not allow the UNHCR earlier because our early findings were that they (the boat people) were economic migrants," he said on Friday.

He said Indonesia now accepted the possibility the migrants "faced some threats in the legal system from their countries of origin due to religious politics, among others."

"We do not reject that the boat people in Sabang and Idi Rayeuk left their countries due to reasons that were more political in nature," he added.

His comments will likely rile fellow Southeast Asian countries Burma and Thailand, which have denied any wrongdoing after boats full of migrants began appearing in Indian and Indonesian waters last month.

The men from mainly Buddhist Burma's minority Rohingya Muslim community have said they were among about 1,000 migrants who landed illegally on Thai territory late last year.

They say they were beaten for days by Thai security forces and then towed out to sea in around nine engineless boats and set adrift with little food and water.

About 850 have been found but rights groups fear that scores and possibly hundreds could still be missing at sea, feared dead.

© 2009 AFP

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