Thailand’s navy insisted Friday that its ships had not located a boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees after Malaysia’s coast guard chief claimed it was in Thai waters and had been blocked from entering Malaysian territory many times.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, called on the two neighboring countries to rescue the Rohingya who were reported to be at sea off Koh Adang, a Thai island near the Malaysia border, and provide them with access to asylum.
“The Navy only heard about Rohingya boats in territorial waters from news reports. Malaysia did not contact us over the boat’s presence there,” Royal Thai Navy Spokesman Rear Adm. Prachachart Sirisawat told BenarNews on Friday.
“We asked our patrol units, but we didn’t find any Rohingya boats. We patrol our territory regularly,” he said.
If any Rohingya boats were spotted, he said the navy “would give them humanitarian assistance,” such as providing them with food, fuel and water.
“The Navy must give basic assistance to anyone having trouble at seas, it is a universal principle. But wherever they want to go, they can,” Prachachart said.
On Monday, Malaysia’s coast guard, the Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), towed a disabled boat carrying 269 Rohingya to shore on Langkawi Island, and has since detained them there, Malaysian officials said.
Two days later, MMEA chief Mohd Zubil Mat Som told BenarNews that the boat in Langkawi was one of two that sailed from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in February. Both boats were at sea for four months and had been supplied with food and fuel by human trafficking syndicates from Myanmar and Thailand, he said.
The second boat, with about 300 people aboard, was in waters off Koh Adang, he told BenarNews on Wednesday.
That boat had “made many attempts to enter Malaysian waters previously but failed because it was detected by our patrols,” Mohd Zubil said at the time.
On Friday, the coast guard chief replied “no comment” when BenarNews contacted him again for clarification of his earlier remarks about the second boat.
Malaysian officials towed the first Rohingya boat to shore after discovering that its crew, who reportedly fled from the boat, had damaged the engine. Previously, Malaysian authorities had redirected boats to international waters, not allowing them to land after Malaysia had sealed its borders to unauthorized ships due to concerns around containing the coronavirus pandemic.
Bangladesh, from where the boats reportedly departed, hosts about 1 million Rohingya who had fled from Rakhine state in Myanmar at refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district. Many of the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine state in August 2017.
After Malaysian officials said they intended to send the 269 Rohingya who had arrived in Langkawi back to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s top diplomat pushed backed, saying his government would refuse to take them in.
“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,” Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews. Rohingya are members of a stateless minority group in Myanmar.
Boats turned away
In a statement issued Friday, Human Rights Watch urged Malaysia and Thailand to locate the second Rohingya boat and give shelter to the people on board.
“Malaysia and Thailand should urgently rescue Rohingya refugees stranded at sea and provide them with assistance and access to asylum,” the New York-based global watchdog group said.
Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said Southeast Asian governments were “callously passing the buck on protecting Rohingya refugees desperate for sanctuary and a future after Myanmar’s military drove them from their homes with mass atrocities.”
“While Myanmar remains ultimately responsible for the Rohingya refugees’ plight, Malaysia and Thailand should stop wearing blinders about the immediate risks and suffering that they face at sea,” he said.
HRW also called on the two nations to take a responsible approach regarding the refugees.
“Under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. Subjecting those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine may be reasonable. But the pandemic does not justify a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress, risking the right to life of those on board,” Human Rights Watch said.
The boat that arrived in Langkawi on June 8 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 the island. Malaysian authorities have prevented more than 20 boats from entering the country illegally since May 1, according to Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
“Malaysia’s pushback policy also violates international obligations to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they would face a risk of torture or other ill-treatment,” HRW said. “All countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, have the responsibility to respond to boats in distress, enact or coordinate rescue operations, and ensure timely disembarkation in a safe port.”
In Geneva on Friday, an official with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on the status of a second Rohingya boat.
On Wednesday, UNHCR officials in Malaysia said they were still trying to contact the Rohingya who were being held at a detention camp on Langkawi.
“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,” an official said at the time.