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Kerry discusses shelter for Rohingya with Thai minister

migrants carry a sick friend towards a temporary shelter upon arrival at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

May 15, 2015

The United States explored the possibility of Thailand giving shelter to Rohingya Muslims adrift at sea on Friday and urged countries in the region not to send the migrants back out to sea.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the Thai foreign minister to discuss temporary shelter for the Rohingya as the Thai prime minister said more migrants may take jobs from Thais and Indonesia's military chief warned of "social issues."

Nearly 800 "boat people" were brought ashore in Indonesia on Friday, but other vessels crammed with migrants were sent back to sea despite a United Nations call to rescue thousands adrift in Southeast Asian waters with dwindling food and water.

"The secretary called his Thai counterpart (Thursday) night to discuss the situation of migrants in the Andaman Sea and to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter," U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh are stranded on boats as regional governments block them from landing.

Rathke said nearly 3,000 migrants had landed in Indonesia and Malaysia this week and were receiving help.

He added U.S. ambassadors are "intensely engaged" with governments about mounting a rapid humanitarian response.

"We urge the governments of the region to work together quickly ... to save the lives of migrants now at sea who are in need of an immediate rescue," he said. "We urge governments in the region to refrain from push backs of new boat arrivals."

Many of the boat people are Rohingya, a stateless, Muslim minority people from Myanmar described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Washington continued to raise its concerns with Myanmar over the migrants that are fleeing "because of dire humanitarian and economic situations they face at home out of fear of ethnic and religious violence."

However, the State Department's Rathke made clear the United States would not curtail its engagement with Myanmar to pressure the authorities to better protect the Rohingya.

"Will we decide to disengage with Burma because we have a disagreement over their approach to the Rohingya? No, we will remain engaged with Burma," he said. "But that doesn't mean in any way that we're going to shrink from - from what we think is appropriate, including under Burma's own commitments." 

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Arshad Mohammed, additional reporting by Julia Edwards; editing by Doina Chiacu and G Crosse)

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