May 19, 2015 / 4:53 PM / in 2 years

Bangladesh to strengthen coastguard amid Asia migrant crisis

A Rohingya boy, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, holds his ball as he walks at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province, May 19, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh is to strengthen its coastguard operations in an effort to stop human trafficking and other illegal activities on its shores as a refugee crisis mounts in Asia.

An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar boarded smugglers’ boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period of 2014, the U.N. refugee agency has said.

“We have undertaken a 4.6 billion taka ($59 million) project to strengthen the coastguards,” Planning Minister Mustafa Kamal said on Tuesday, adding that the extra cash would help curb human trafficking, illegal fishing and smuggling in the seas.

The money will be spent on buying more modern equipment.

Earlier this month, a Bangladesh coastguard and navy team rescued more than 100 Malaysia-bound migrants, including several children, from a boat that had been abandoned by its crew in the Bay of Bengal.

Malaysia, one of Southeast Asia’s wealthier economies, has long been a magnet for illegal immigrants.

Together with Indonesia, it is experiencing a surge in boat people from Bangladesh and Myanmar after Thailand, usually the destination of choice for people-smugglers, announced a crackdown on trafficking.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have turned back or towed overcrowded migrant boats away from their coastlines, in what the International Organization for Migration has described as “maritime ping-pong with human lives”.

U.N. agencies urged all three countries on Tuesday to step up sea rescue operations and stop preventing the migrants from reaching land. Some 2,500 migrants have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia over the past week, while around 5,000 remain stranded at sea in rickety boats with dwindling supplies of food and water.

Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Alison Williams

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