The thousands of desperate migrants stranded on Southeast Asian waters have fled countries with dire economic circumstances and racially discriminatory policies.
But if fixing the problem requires addressing root causes, then a 17-nation conference in Bangkok on Friday offered little hope of success. Myanmar, the country at the centre of the ongoing crisis, flatly refused to discuss its own role in driving members of its Muslim Rohingya minority to seek better lives elsewhere.
In recent weeks, Rohingya have been among the thousands of migrants who have arrived in Indonesia and Malaysia after months at sea, some too weak to walk off boats some have called "floating coffins." But Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has refused to acknowledge a problem inside its own borders, in the past even refusing to attend conferences where the word "Rohingya" is used.
On "this issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country," Foreign Ministry Director-General Htin Lynn said Friday.
He was responding to a call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which wants Myanmar to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, a people born into a country that refuses to recognize them as more than illegal residents. They are, as a result, stateless and the object of frequent persecution.
Just 10 days ago, Myanmar president Thein Sein approved a law enabling states to restrict the number of children Rohingya can have. Other laws require official approval for Muslim Rohingya to marry Buddhist Burmese.
As the international community struggles to find, rescue and help thousands of migrants believed to still be stranded on boats, it is increasingly pointing the finger at Myanmar and the conditions it has created for the Rohingya. As many as 100,000 have fled, while 140,000 now live inside Myanmar in camps for internally displaced people where conditions are often horrifying.
Stemming the flow of migrants – and the misery that drives it – "will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar to all its people," Volker Turk, UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection, said Friday. "Granting of citizenship is the ultimate goal."
Myanmar's Mr. Htin Lynn retorted that the UN should not politicize the matter, saying "some issues" are domestic in nature. Myanmar has said it wants to discuss what it sees as a regional problem.
In recent weeks, more than 3,000 migrants have landed on Indonesian and Malaysian shores, some after spending months at sea on crowded, thirst-stricken boats where men reportedly used knives to steal food from children and the dead were dumped overboard.
Many of the recent arrivals are Bangladeshis fleeing poverty. But their plight has drawn much less attention than that of the Rohingya. Financier George Soros recently compared Rohingya camps in Myanmar to Jewish ghettos in Europe during the Second World War.
Thai and Malaysian police have, in recent weeks, uncovered mass graves at jungle camps run by human traffickers. Among the more than 100 dead are believed to be Rohingya.
Hosted by Thailand, the Friday "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" was, from the outset, doomed to limited success. The three countries at the heart of the current crisis – Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia – declined to send ministers, an indication of unwillingness to broker real change.
Among those who did attend was the United States, which has offered search ships and aircraft, along with money and an offer to resettle some of the migrants.
On Thursday, a group of Australian NGOs released a joint statement calling on governments to "urgently develop regional and national solutions that address the root causes of refugee and migrant outflows."
But it's not clear how to untangle the diplomatic and political problems behind an exodus ongoing for decades. The poverty driving Bangladeshis onto boats has no easy resolution. And the Rohingya have been kept stateless by race-based politics in Myanmar that show no sign of going away.
Myanmar is a rarity, a nation with a partially democratic system accused by a former United Nations special rapporteur of committing genocide. The reason is rooted in majoritarian politics: Discriminating against the Muslim Rohingya is popular in many corners of the deeply Buddhist country.
Changing that won't be easy, either. Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused of being "anti-Rohingya," with the Dalai Lama this week calling on her to do more on behalf of the persecuted.