Myanmar's neighbours should prepare to accept refugees from the country's Rohingya minority who may try to flee abroad to escape bloody communal violence, refugee organisations said Thursday.
Clashes in Myanmar's Rakhine state pitting Buddhists against members of the Muslim Rohingya minority have left at least 180 dead since violence broke out in June, swamped refugee camps and forced tens of thousands to flee the bloodshed.
Rohingya have for years trickled abroad to neighbouring Bangladesh and, increasingly, Muslim-majority Malaysia by boat. The violence has sparked warnings of a potential surge in refugees opting for the dangerous sea voyage.
"We are appealing to countries to keep borders open and to ensure safe access and whatever assistance they can provide," said Vivian Tan, Asia-Pacific spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
"The main thing is that they have a safe place to land," she said.
Tan said Myanmar's neighbours also should ensure that the UNHCR is granted access to any Rohingya who have legitimate claims to refugee status.
The Muslim minority, who speak a Bengali dialect in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, claim decades of persecution.
The government views the roughly 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.
Bangladeshi police say about 130 people are missing after a boat sank Sunday while carrying Rohingya refugees heading for Malaysia.
Decades-old animosity between Buddhists and Rohingya exploded in June after the apparent rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman sparked a series of revenge attacks.
Human Rights Watch warned this week of a potential "dramatic increase in the number of Rohingya taking to the sea this year" in the wake of the unrest.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, meanwhile, has warned the bloodshed could leave the Rohingya minority "radicalised and the entire region could be destabilised, including the Malacca Straits", the vital shipping lane between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
He declined Thursday to further elaborate to AFP.
Aid and refugee agencies said the violence does not appear to have triggered a large-scale Rohingya exodus yet, but they urged nearby countries to prepare.
"Countries need to show their generosity and compassion at this time of crisis," said Sharuna Verghis, co-founder of Malaysian refugee help organisation Health Equity Initiative.
The UNHCR in Malaysia has registered some 24,000 Rohingyas as refugees but community leaders estimate actual numbers in the country could be double that.
Malaysia largely turns a blind eye, allowing them into the country but denying them any sort of legal status that would allow access to health care, education, jobs, and other services, activists say.
That leaves many Rohingya like Nur Jahan, 54, on society's margins.
Nur Jahan arrived from Rakhine state four months ago and she and her seven children have scraped out a tough existence scouring through trashbins on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur for scrap items they can sell.
Her husband is sick and going blind.
"Life is very difficult here... We cannot work because we don't have documents. How do we survive? I don't have any hope and I cannot hope to return (to Myanmar)," she told AFP through an interpreter.
Malaysia must prepare for more arrivals and provide access to basic services, said Verghis.
"It is a humanitarian crisis. That's why a regional solution is needed, and part of the solution must be that everyone does their bit," she said.