Rohingya Muslims are heading criminal syndicates that smuggle thousands of people into Malaysia by sea, Malaysian Deputy Police Inspector-General Noor Rashid Ibrahim told RFA on Thursday.
"There are syndicates that smuggle thousands of them by boat. The syndicates are masterminded by Rohingya themselves,” he said in northern Perlis state.
That is where Malaysian authorities this week uncovered 28 human-smuggling camps and started excavating 139 graves of suspected migrants in the jungle along the Thai border.
Ibrahim revealed that some suspected members of one of these human-trafficking rings had been arrested and that the camps found at Bukit Wang Burma in Perlis were relatively new.
"If you look at the physical condition of the camps, the wood used to build the camp still looks new,” he said.
Elsewhere on Thursday, Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar denied that Malaysians were masterminds of such illicit operations.
“They [Malaysians] might have knowledge of the trafficking activities and could be accomplices, but they are not the organizers,” The Star, a Malaysian news outlet, quoted him as saying.
According to a report published Thursday by the state-run Bernama news agency, a Rohingya known as “Yassin” was the main man behind the camps found in the jungle.
Bernama also carried an exclusive interview with a 25-year-old Rohingya man who said that he had escaped from one of those camps after being imprisoned there last year.
The interview reportedly took place in Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah state just south of Perlis.
"There was only one thing on my mind – death. I wanted to die because dying would be easier than living," camp survivor Nurul Amin Nobi Hussein told Bernama.
He said he was confined to a cage that held between 200 to 300 people and that some 1,500 people were detained at his camp.
"I was locked up in a cage like the goats and chickens, and all the time, I was surrounded by death. Each day, five or six of us would die, either from illness or [they] were beaten up and shot," he said.
In other developments, Malaysian naval ships Thursday spotted two boats believed to be transporting 40 illegal migrants off northwestern Langkawi island, but the vessels sailed away after being detected, according to news reports.
"Both boats turned away to Thai waters after being aware of the presence of a RMN [Royal Malaysian Navy] ship which was monitoring their movements," Bernama quoted Capt. Shahrum Shaim as saying.
If the vessels were in fact carrying illegal migrants, Thursday’s sighting would be the first reported sighting of a human-smuggling boat in the Strait of Malacca since Indonesian fishermen rescued 433 Bangladeshi and Rohingya Muslim migrants from a wooden boat eight days ago, on May 20.
According to Agence-France Presse, the two boats each carried 20 people.
“The orders are to search for them and provide humanitarian assistance. We are also prepared to bring them to land," AFP quoted Roslee Mohamad Isa, acting commander of Malaysia's northern region navy, as saying.
"I have nine tons of food and clothing for the migrants who we believe are ethnic Rohingya,” Roslee added. “We want to save lives.”
‘There’s got to be credibility’
The sighting occurred on the eve of an international meeting on human trafficking and irregular migration that is scheduled to take place in Bangkok on Friday.
Representatives of at least 17 countries will gather to discuss ways to deal with human trafficking as well as stem a humanitarian crisis around illegal migrants.
More than 3,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants have come ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia since May 10.
The Persian Gulf state of Qatar on Thursday pledged $50 million to help Indonesia shelter Muslim Rohingya migrants from Myanmar, AFP reported.
States sheltering the migrants should ensure that the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migrants have unhindered access to them, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told RFA.
"It's important that the access be unimpeded, be unconditional, so that these international agencies can do their job and sort out who these people are," he said.
Such an “unimpeachable assessment” by independent agencies would allow the international community to help repatriate or resettle migrants in third countries, according to Robertson.
"There's got to be credibility throughout,” he added. “If there's going to be burden sharing by the international community, assessments of who these people are, and what their conditions are, and where they came from and why they came here, have to be done in an impartial way by a U.N. agency that everybody can trust.”
Bangladesh to move thousands offshore
Meanwhile, the government in Bangladesh, one of the countries at the source of the maritime migration crisis, says it plans to move Rohingya refugees who are concentrated in Cox’s Bazar district to an island off its coast, starting with an initial transfer of 34,000 people.
Over the years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled religious conflict in Rakhine, a state in western Myanmar that lies across the border from Cox’s Bazar.
The Rohingya will be relocated to Hatia Island because Cox’s Bazar – a popular tourist destination in southeastern Bangladesh – is overcrowded with these refugees, Noakhali District Commissioner Bodor Munir Ferdous told RFA.
“The government asked us to find land for them, [and] we proposed a 500-acre plot on Hatia Island,” he said. “We are discussing the matter on how to shift them from Cox’ Bazar to Hatia Island.”
UNHCR, which has been assisting Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh since 1991, said the move should be voluntary, AFP reported.
A forced relocation would be "very complex and controversial," UNHCR spokeswoman Onchita Shadman told the news agency.
Reported by RFA.