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Thailand hosts talks on Southeast Asia migrant crisis

[BANGKOK] Delegates from 17 nations gathered in Thailand Friday for talks on Southeast Asia's migrant crisis which has seen thousands of desperate people flee on boats across the Bay of Bengal aiming for Malaysia and Indonesia.

But observers say it is unclear what the one-day meeting, held at a Bangkok hotel, which is not being attended at a ministerial level, can achieve on an issue that has dogged the region for years but gone largely ignored by authorities.

Earlier this month Bangkok began a belated crackdown on the smuggling trade in the country's deep south, after dozens of bodies were pulled from mass graves in a remote border area studded by migrant camps.

On the Malaysian side of the same frontier, authorities have found 139 suspected migrants' graves.

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The Thai crackdown threw the multi-million dollar people smuggling industry into disarray as gangmasters abandoned their victims on land and at sea and images of stick-thin, dazed migrants stumbling onto shores or out off forests shocked the world.

More than 3,500 starving migrants have since arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil while the UN estimates there are 2,500 more still feared trapped at sea as the monsoon season approaches.

The vast majority of migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar or Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty.

In a transcript of his opening remarks, Thailand's foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn said "the influx of irregular migrants... has reached alarming levels" creating an "urgent" regional problem needing a united response.

He added that "the root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed" in comments apparently directed at Myanmar and Bangladesh, in a region where countries shy away from direct diplomatic confrontation.

But some observers have cast doubt over the capacity of Southeast Asian neighbours to act on a cross-border issue which has exposed gaping holes in the rule of law in several countries.

"Asean countries have hidden behind the notion of 'non-interference' to turn a blind eye to the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, to the growth of criminal smuggling and human trafficking networks, and the increasing demand for undocumented labourers," Sam Zarifi, Asia director for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said in a statement.

Countries attending the talks include those directly affected by the current crisis such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia - all of whom vacillated for days before bowing to international pressure to offer humanitarian aid to migrants trapped at sea.

Myanmar and Bangladesh are also sending delegates after both nations came under increasing pressure to address the root causes of why so many of their citizens flee their shores.

Myanmar's 1.3 million Rohingyas are one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

They face restrictions on movement, jobs and family size while the government refuses to recognise them as citizens, instead calling them illegal "Bengalis" from Bangladesh.

But the former junta-led quasi-civilian government has balked at any criticism of its treatment of the community and has previously threatened to pull out of the talks altogether if the word Rohingya is used.

Other countries attending have a less obvious direct link to the Southeast Asian migrant crisis such as Afghanistan, India, Iran and Papua New Guinea.

All those attending are below minister level, apart from Thailand's junta-appointed Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn.

The United States, which is attending as an observer, is set later Friday to pledge financial assistance to tackle the crisis.

Switzerland, the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration are also sending observers.

Jeff Labovitz, head of the IOM's Thailand office, told AFP he hoped those nations attending would come up with "practical suggestions on how to work together and how to stop trafficking or smuggling issues." But he added: "Problems won't be solved in one meeting."