State Department: Rohingya refugee crisis an emergency

Myanmar and Bangladeshi Rohingya migrants arrive on a boat of local fisherman in Kuala Langsa, Indonesia on May 15, 2015. (Photo by Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA)
Myanmar and Bangladeshi Rohingya migrants arrive on a boat of local fisherman in Kuala Langsa, Indonesia on May 15, 2015.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees are fleeing Myanmar on boats in the Andaman Sea to escape persecution from a historically intolerant government. An estimated 6,000 to 20,000 migrants are adrift in overcrowded boats, according to NPR.  Some have even been aboard the vessels for as long as three months because some countries have reportedly turned them away. 

“I am appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths,” United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told The New York Times. “The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them.”

RELATED: Myanmar: An Apartheid State?

White House spokesman Eric Schultz also expressed the concerns over those fleeing "because of dire humanitarian and economic situations they face at home out of fear of ethnic and religious violence." President Obama plans to maintain some sanctions on Myanmar, though the U.S. would not cease engaging with the country, he said in a routine note to Congress Friday. 

Rohingya people are considered to be "one of the most persecuted" minorities in the world, according to Al Jazeera. In Myanmar, they have been denied citizenship under the law for more than 30 years and subjected to what the New York Times described in 2014 as "quasi-concentration camps."  

"This is an emergency that we believe needs to be addressed with appropriate speed and resolve through a regionally coordinated effort to save the lives of the thousands of vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers," U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Jeff Rathke said in a press briefing Friday. 

"We urge the countries of the region to work together to save lives at sea," he remarked the day before.

Three thousand people have already been taken in by Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that have been providing the refugees with assistance. The State Department also urged governments to not turn away newly arriving boats with migrants. 

"We are coordinating with the affected government authorities, also with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration," Rathke continued. "The priority is to save lives." 

Meanwhile, the Thai government is also organizing a regional conference on May 29 with counties that are taking in some of the migrants. Since 2014, the U.S. has provided $109 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Burmese people, including the Rohingya.