A boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya that has been at sea four months is currently off southern Thailand and has been blocked from entering Malaysia’s waters multiple times, a senior Malaysian maritime official said Wednesday.
The Rohingya on board the boat have been supplied with food and fuel by syndicates from Thailand and Myanmar, the chief of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) told BenarNews.
“The boat carrying about 300 people is in Koh Adang island (waters). We believe that the vessel departed from Cox’s Bazar in February together with the one that successfully landed,” said Mohd Zubil Mat Som, the MMEA director-general, referring to a boat towed ashore at Langkawi, an island in northern Malaysia, on Monday.
The second vessel “made many attempts to enter Malaysian waters previously but failed because it was detected by our patrols,” he said.
A Thai naval official denied that any Rohingya boats were present in Thai waters in the Andaman Sea off Koh Adang, an island near the border with Malaysia.
“Based on ship and helicopter patrolling, I don’t see any reports that we spotted (Rohingya boats). We saw none,” a Navy officer told BenarNews on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media directly.
Malaysian officials, for their part, have insisted that no unauthorized boats would be allowed to enter Malaysian territory. The boat that reached Langkawi was brought to shore only after dozens of its passengers jumped overboard and began swimming toward the island. Officials later reported that the boat’s engine had been “sabotaged.”
70 percent cannot walk
The Malaysian coast guard chief confirmed that both Rohingya boats had sailed from Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh where close to 1 million Rohingya refugees from nearby Rakhine state in Myanmar have been sheltering at sprawling refugee camps.
“The syndicates provided food and gas for the vessels. No vessel can last in the sea for four months without aid,” Mohd Zubil said.
Authorities have begun screening the 269 Rohingya who were on board the boat that landed on June 8, including for the coronavirus, the MMEA head said.
He noted that 70 percent of them could not walk properly because they had been sitting and squatting for months aboard the boat.
On Wednesday, officials with the U.N.’s refugee agency said they were still trying to access the 269 Rohingya who have been held at a detention center on Langkawi since Monday.
“At this early stage, UNHCR has no first-hand information about the group, and is therefore unable to confirm their origin or provide information about their situation,” a spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur for the U.N. agency said in response to questions from BenarNews.
“UNHCR has sought immediate access to this group of arrivals in order to assess their protection needs and has offered to support, together with its partners, the Government of Malaysia by providing immediate humanitarian assistance and protection services in line with international standards,” the official said.
The U.N. also commended Malaysia for its “positive humanitarian action” through allowing the boat to land at Langkawi – the first time in more than two months that Malaysian authorities permitted a boatload of Rohingya refugees to enter territorial waters after the country sealed its borders to guard against the further spread of COVID-19.
“Allowing for the timely and safe disembarkation of refugees and asylum-seekers is a critical and life-saving act, consistent with international norms for the protection of asylum-seekers and persons at risk at sea including the principle of non-refoulement,” UNHCR said.
‘Malaysia should send the Rohingyas to Myanmar’
A day earlier, Malaysian Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob said that Malaysia would send the boat’s passengers back to Bangladesh if it was determined that their trip began in Cox’s Bazar.
In Dhaka, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said that his government would not take in the Rohingya who came ashore in Malaysia.
“Rohingyas are the citizens of Myanmar and Malaysia should send the Rohingyas to Myanmar instead of Bangladesh. Otherwise, they (Malaysia) can keep Rohingyas in their own country,” the foreign minister told BenarNews. Rohingya are members of a stateless minority group in Myanmar.
Meanwhile in Bangkok, human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights called on Asian countries to allow Rohingya boats to land.
“Countries in the region should urgently allow Rohingya refugees and trafficking survivors to disembark. Rohingya people are genocide survivors and need protection, not to be left to die at sea,” Putthanee Kangkun, a researcher with the group, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
The refugees from the boat should not be detained indefinitely, she said.
“We know there are more boats at sea,” she added, citing information passed on by a colleague in Bangladesh.
“We know from previous interviews from two other recent boats that Rohingya died at sea, and conditions are awful on the boats. For example deprivation of food and water,” she said.
In mid-April hundreds of Rohingya men, women and children were said to be “starving” when they were brought ashore in Cox’s Bazar after a failed attempt to reach Malaysia by sea, with witnesses saying that Malaysian authorities had turned away their boat.
During the sea crossing dozens of passengers died and their bodies were thrown overboard, people who survived the journey said.