Malaysia’s top maritime agency on Tuesday intercepted a boat carrying nearly five dozen Rohingya near the country’s northwestern coast, officials said.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said the boat, discovered off the island of Langkawi, was ferrying 36 adults and about 20 children. The group belongs to the ethnic Rohingya community, which has been at the receiving end of what the United Nations calls a “systematic ethnic cleansing” in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
An official said 29 of the boat’s occupants were women.
“[MMEA] provided early aid such as food, water and medicine,” said North Regional Director Adm. Rozali Mohammed Said.
The refugees were to be handed over to the state immigration department because they were found within Malaysian waters and without valid documents, Rozali said.
While the MMEA took seriously any sign of aggression across Malaysian waters, agency officials were trying to show leniency to the Rohingya on the principle of humanity, he said.
On Monday, Malaysian authorities said they had stepped up security in the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea to intercept boats presumably filled with Rohingya who were seeking to escape the latest wave of violence against their community in Myanmar.
At least 670,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and settled in makeshift camps across the border in Bangladesh since August 2017, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations. At that time, members of the insurgent group Arakan Salvation Rohingya Army (ARSA) allegedly attacked Myanmar police and army posts, provoking a brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya minority concentrated in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Six Malaysian government ships were mobilized off Langkawi after officials received intelligence that a boat carrying 56 Rohingya had anchored near Thailand on Sunday because of rough seas, Rozali said.
Human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights said Thai police confirmed spotting the boat near Krabi province and sending it back to sea.
“It [the boat] was sent to Malaysia after it was repaired and its crew was supplied with food and fuel,” a Thai official told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on condition of anonymity.
Rozali said there had been no confirmation of the boat’s entry into Malaysian waters.
Fortify Rights CEO Matthew Smith said governments in the Southeast Asian region needed to follow their legal obligations to protect Rohingya refugees instead of packing them off to potential death sentences at seas.
“This is not a problem that will go away on its own,” Smith said.
While the origin of the Rohingya has not be determined, Krabi police chief Col. Pattanachak Chakrabhan said most of the boat’s occupants likely came from Myanmar’s Rakhine state and had planned to take refuge in Malaysia.
“They had no connections with human trafficking syndicates,” he said.
In May 2015, human traffickers abandoned boats carrying thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of trafficking after Thailand and Malaysia reinforced their borders and refused to allow the boats to make port, resulting in an untold number of deaths, according to Fortify Rights.
“The Thai and Malaysian authorities went so far as to tow boats of refugees out of their territorial waters, leaving them adrift at sea,” the rights group said.
An official from Bangladesh, where thousands of Rohingya have found shelter following the latest wave of violence in neighboring Myanmar, said the boat could not have crossed his country’s waters.
“People can no longer use any river and sea route to go to Malaysia as we have stopped movement of boats on the Bangladesh side of the river Naf [that divides Myanmar and Bangladesh],” Afrozul Haque Tutul, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.