By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - The flow of desperate migrants across the Bay of Bengal will continue unless Myanmar ends discrimination against its Rohingya Muslim minority, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said on Friday.
"Until the Myanmar government addresses the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, this precarious migration will continue," he said in a statement.
Zeid said the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state, the origin of many of the migrants, was “one of the principal motivators of these desperate maritime movements”.
The Rohingya minority is described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted peoples.
"Criminalizing such vulnerable people, including children, and placing them in detention is not the solution,” Zeid said.
Around 25,000 migrants, mainly Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, fled by boat in the first three months of this year, many smuggled or trafficked to Thailand and held in camps until they paid to reach the Malaysian border.
Thousands have been abandoned at sea in flimsy vessels after Thailand launched a crackdown on people-smugglers. The navies of southeast Asian countries have pushed many away from their coasts.
Over the past week, nearly 2,500 have drifted onto the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR appealed on Tuesday for an international search and rescue operation for the many stranded at sea.
“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. The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them,” Zeid said.
He said the latest report of the Thai navy forcing a boat carrying several hundred people back out to sea after supplying it with provisions was “incomprehensible and inhumane".
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Roche)