MALAYSIAN authorities on Tuesday intercepted a boat carrying 56 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma (Myanmar) off the northern island of Langkawi, having passed through Thailand over the weekend.
“Generally all 56 passengers, mostly children and women, are safe but tired and hungry,” Malaysian navy chief Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin told Reuters. “We have provided them with water, food and other humanitarian assistance.”
Last September, Malaysia’s coastguard pledged not to turn refugee boats fleeing the Rohingya crisis away. Muslim-majority Malaysia has been openly critical of the Burmese government over its failure to protect the Rohingya from violence and persecution in the Rakhine.
Rights groups expect refugees to take further perilous journeys to flee persecution in Burma’s Rakhine State and squalor in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Bangkok-based NGO Fortify Rights said this week that Thailand and Malaysia should assist the refugees in accordance with international law.
“This is not a problem that will go away on its own,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Governments in this region need to show leadership and follow their legal obligations to protect refugees rather than send them to potential death sentences at sea.”
According to UN and other rights groups, some 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fled their homes in Rakhine into Bangladesh after militant attacks in August last year sparked a military crackdown that the United Nations and Western countries have said constitutes ethnic cleansing.
Buddhist-majority Burma rejects that charge, saying its forces have been waging a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” who attacked government forces.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya fled Burma by sea following an outbreak of sectarian violence in Rakhine in 2012, some falling prey to human traffickers. That exodus peaked in 2015, when an estimated 25,000 people fled across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, many drowning in unsafe and overloaded boats.
Due to the fresh outbreak of violence in Burma, rights groups expect another surge in Rohingya boats reaching Southeast Asia, during the months the seas are calmer, even if not at the levels of three years ago.
Its Maritime Enforcement Agency Director General Zulkifili Abu Bakar said the refugees would be allowed to enter the country on humanitarian grounds. “They will be handed over to the Immigration Department,” he told Reuters in a text message.
Malaysia had stepped up its coastguard patrols in the northern Straits of Melaka and Andaman Sea as it anticipated the boat, reported Channel News Asia.
While it has not signed the UN Refugee Convention and treats refugees as illegal migrants, Malaysia is already home to more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees – many of whom have lived there for generations.
Additional reporting from Reuters.