US says willing to take in Rohingya boat people

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States is willing to take in Rohingya refugees as part of international efforts to cope with Southeast Asia's stranded boat people, the State Department said Wednesday.

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the U.S. is prepared to take a leading role in any multicountry effort, organized by the United Nations refugee agency, to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.

In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 people - Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty - have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of various Southeast Asian countries. Aid groups say thousands more are stranded at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats because of a crackdown by authorities.

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US says willing to take in Rohingya boat people
In this picture taken on May 21, 2015, ethnic Rohingya Muslim men from Myanmar sit in lines at a newly set up confinement area situated amid a palm oil plantation at Bayeun, after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the coast of Aceh province on May 20. Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions on May 21 for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea, as Myanmar hosted talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores. AFP PHOTO / Sutanta ADITYA (Photo credit should read SUTANTA ADITYA/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya youths from Myanmar wash themselves at the newly set up confinement area for migrants at Bayeun, Aceh province on May 22, 2015 after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the waters of the province on May 20. The widespread persecution of the impoverished community in Myanmar's Rakhine state is one of the primary causes for the current regional exodus, alongside growing numbers trying to escape poverty in neighbouring Bangladesh. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A man (C) looks at an abandoned boat that carried Rohingya migrants who were rescued earlier in the day, off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in Indonesia's East Aceh district of Aceh province on May 20, 2015. Hundreds of starving boatpeople were rescued off Indonesia on May 20 as Myanmar for the first time offered to help ease a regional migrant crisis blamed in part on its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LANGSA, INDONESIA - MAY 19: Rohingya migrants breakfast inside a temporary shelter on May 19, 2015 in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees arrived in Indonesia on May 15, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
KUTA BINJE, INDONESIA - MAY 20: Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants take a bath after arriving at the port in Julok village on May 20, 2015 in Kuta Binje, Aceh Province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
KUTA BINJE, INDONESIA - MAY 20: Rohingya migrants eat after arriving at the port in Julok village on May 20, 2015 in Kuta Binje, Aceh Province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after they jumped from a boat (R) drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants jump to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants bring back food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after jumping to collect them at sea from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrant women cry as they sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
A Rohingya migrant eats food dropped by a Thai army helicopter after he jumped to collect the supplies at sea from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of rescued migrant children, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, rest on their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a co-ordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A young boy and his mother rest in a shelter after their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a co-ordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, receive medical treatment upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have been reluctant to let the Rohingya in and have turned boats full of hungry, thirsty people away, because they fear a flood of unwanted migrants. But on Wednesday, they relented.

Harf welcomed the governments' decision "to uphold their responsibilities under international law and provide humanitarian assistance and shelter to 7,000 vulnerable migrants." The U.S. would consider requests from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration for funds to help receive and screen refugees as they come to shore.

Harf said that since Oct. 1, the U.S. has resettled more than 1,000 Rohingya. Last year, the U.S. accepted nearly 70,000 refugees - people with a well-founded fear of persecution - from around the world.

"I think the Malaysians and the Indonesians have requested some help resettling people. We're taking a careful look at the proposal," Harf told reporters in Washington. "It has to be a multicountry effort. We obviously can't take this all on ourselves. But we are prepared to play a leading role in this effort."

Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will visit Myanmar on Thursday and urge it to cooperate with Bangladesh to help migrants who are adrift. Harf said he would call for Myanmar to improve conditions inside the country for Rohingya.

"The only sustainable solution to the problem is changing the conditions that let them put their lives at risk at the first place," Blinken, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat, told reporters in Indonesia.

At least 120,000 minority Muslim Rohingya have fled sectarian violence and apartheid-like conditions in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar in the past three years. Myanmar officials refer to the group as "Bengalis" and insist they have immigrated illegally from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.

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