Malaysia intercepts boat carrying 56 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar
The boat had stopped temporarily Sunday in southern Thailand, where it underwent repairs and was resupplied with fuel and food before being sent on its way to Malaysia, as its passengers reportedly desired
Malaysia has intercepted a boat carrying 56 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar off its northern island of Langkawi, authorities said on Tuesday, with some rights groups expecting further perilous journeys by sea after last year’s surge in violence in Myanmar.
The boat had stopped at an island in southern Thailand on Sunday after a storm, with officials there saying the refugees were heading to Malaysia.
It had set sail from central Rakhine state in Myanmar, the UN refugee agency said.
“Generally all 56 passengers, mostly children and women, are safe but tired and hungry,” Malaysian navy chief Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin said.
“We have provided them with water, food and other humanitarian assistance.”
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 Myanmar rejects that charge, saying its forces have been waging a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” who attacked government forces.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar 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 Myanmar, some 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.
However, an expert on the plight of the Rohingya said the appearance this week of the boat – the first known case this year – does not portend a new exodus by sea.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an independent research and advocacy group, said that the safe time for such journeys is about to pass, as the annual monsoon season normally starts in April.
Tight security by Myanmar officials also makes departures difficult, though it would not be surprising if a handful of more boats were seen in the near future, she said.
Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Director General Zulkifili Abu Bakar said the latest refugees would be allowed to enter the country on humanitarian grounds.
“They will be handed over to the Immigration Department,” he said.
Muslim-majority Malaysia, which has not signed the UN Refugee Convention and treats refugees as illegal migrants, is already home to more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees.
Additional reporting by Associated Press