Malaysian authorities towed a disabled boat ashore and detained 269 Rohingya on Monday after dozens jumped overboard and began swimming to an island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, officials said.
The boat was carrying hundreds more when it left Bangladesh in February, one senior official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to comment on the matter. Maritime authorities had initially tried to push the boat back into international waters on Monday morning off Langkawi, an island in northern Kedah state.
“They were believed to have fled Cox’s Bazar in February,” the source said, referring to a southeastern Bangladeshi district, where close to 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been sheltering at sprawling camps.
“Nine [crew members] fled after the boat entered Malaysia,” the senior Malaysian security source added. “The boat is believed to have carried 500 Rohingya when it departed Bangladesh but only 269 were found.”
The landing marked the first time that Rohingya have been allowed to disembark in Malaysia for more than two months due to border closings related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Late on Monday, Malaysia’s National Task Force issued a statement about the Rohingya boat, but it did not say anything about hundreds of more passenger believed to be on board when it departed Cox’s Bazar, nor did it mention that the boat had sailed from Bangladesh.
A Malaysian coast guard ship, the KM Kimanis, located the boat early Monday and was moving to intercept it and push it back into international waters, the task force said.
“When KM Kimanis was approaching the boat at Langkawi waters, a total of 53 Rohingya jumped into the sea and started swimming to shore. However, all of them were arrested by MMEA officers who were on standby on the island,” the statement said, referring to the coast guard officially known as the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
Damage to the boat’s engine and holes found in the boat “prevented the authorities from carrying out further action. KM Kimanis had given assistance in the form of food items and clean water to the illegal immigrants,” the statement said. “On a humanitarian basis, the National Security Council gave permission for the boat to be towed to Langkawi.”
According to the task force, 216 Rohingya were found on the boat along with the corpse of a Rohingya woman, which was turned over to police. All 269 refugees – those on the boat and those who swam to shore – were detained and taken to the Nation Building Camp, a training center in Langkawi.
The task force is spearheaded by the military and its other members are the Royal Malaysia Police and MMEA. It was launched in May to coordinate border control operations among security agencies.
On May 26, Armed Forces chief Gen. Affendi Buang said the aim of the National Task Force was to tighten border security through collective efforts to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country, stop cross-border crimes and to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Malaysia.
Rights groups repeatedly have raised alarms about the impact of governmental policies in turning away boatloads that typically bring Rohingya refugees and other migrants to Malaysia and other hubs for migrant workers at this time of year.
Since May 1, authorities have prevented 22 boats from entering the country illegally, according to Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
“Authorities have arrested a total of 396 illegal immigrants and 108 ‘tekong’ (boat skippers) for attempting to enter the country’s border through illegal routes,” he told reporters in Putrajaya on Monday. “Also arrested were 11 individuals believed to be human traffickers and 13 vessels were seized.”
The boat was the first carrying Rohingya to land in Malaysia since April 5 when one carrying 202 Rohingya, who were turned over to immigration authorities, also landed at Langkawi.
On April 16, the Royal Malaysian Air Force announced it had stopped an attempt by a trawler carrying about 200 Rohingya to enter the country. It said air force spotters notified the navy, which sent ships to escort the trawler from Malaysian waters but not before delivering food on a “humanitarian basis.”
That incident led international humanitarian organizations and others to criticize the government over risking lives of Rohingya by preventing them from landing.
A day earlier, authorities in Bangladesh rescued nearly 400 Rohingya. Some told horror stories of being at sea on a fishing trawler for almost two months and being refused entry to Malaysia.
Rights groups respond
The North-South Initiative, a Malaysian humanitarian organization, called for the government to recognize Rohingya as asylum seekers.
The group’s executive director, Adrian Pereira, said the government must respect the non-refoulement principle because deporting asylum seekers could put them in harm’s way.
“The government of Malaysia must realize that the Rohingya are one of the most oppressed minorities on the planet. We must recognize them as asylum seekers and ensure they are given proper care,” he told BenarNews. “Let’s show the world that Malaysia has a big heart and we can fulfill our international duties and obligations.”
Malaysia is home to about 180,000 refugees registered through the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, as of February. Rohingya account for more than half of the country’s refugee population, according to Fortify Rights, a human rights advocacy group.