JAKARTA - Indonesia has begun search and rescue operations for stranded migrant boats carrying Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, an official said Sunday, after it dropped a hardline policy of refusing them sanctuary.
Jakarta sparked international outrage by turning away vessels filled with desperate migrants, among thousands stranded at sea since a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking in early May threw the illicit trade into chaos.
Along with neighbouring Malaysia, the government changed approach Wednesday with an announcement that they would take in boat people provided they could be resettled or repatriated within a year.
While Indonesian fisherman have helped hundreds of stranded Rohingya and Bangladeshis to shore, so far there has been no official rescue effort from Jakarta.
But four naval ships, a patrol aircraft, and two pontoons for migrants to disembark, have now been deployed in a search which started Friday evening, military spokesman Fuad Basya told AFP.
"We have officially received an order from President (Joko Widodo) to carry out search and rescue operations, whether in Indonesian territory or international waters," he said.
"We will save the migrants and take them to shore," he said, adding that as of late Saturday, no new boats had been sighted.
In his first public comments on the crisis since it started, Widodo on Saturday said that taking in the migrants was a "good solution" and that regional nations were acting out of a sense of humanity.
But on Sunday he reportedly indicated that Jakarta may not be able to foot the bill for housing thousands of destitute people.
"We're counting and making calculations on the costs involved," he was quoted as saying on Detikcom news website. "We still need international support on how this would be managed."
Stung into action
The Malaysian government announced Thursday that its navy and coastguard would be mobilised for search operations but so far it has not reported any rescues.
Southeast Asia's exodus of boat people has been fanned by persecution and poverty. Most making the perilous journey are Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where they are not recognised as citizens.
Myanmar has faced increasing international pressure to stem the deluge from its shores and deliver urgent humanitarian relief to thousands still trapped at sea.
On Friday its navy said it had carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat, when scores of bare-chested men were found crammed into the hull of a wooden fishing vessel and taken to shore.
Myanmar officials initially said that all 208 men were Bangladeshis and would soon be returned there. However, state media said Sunday that eight were from Rakhine.
More than 3,500 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh since the crisis erupted earlier this month.
However, up to 2,000 vulnerable people are thought to still be stranded, and fears are growing for them at a time when the dry winter months are about to give way to the monsoon.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Saturday that finding and saving the lives of those at sea should be a "top priority".