More than 260 Rohingya arrived by boat in Malaysia on Monday, officials said, despite authorities’ efforts to fight the coronavirus by stopping entry of the Muslim minority.
Fears have been growing in recent months that large numbers of the migrants from mostly Buddhist Myanmar are trapped at sea as countries that traditionally allowed them in turn their boats away. Many previously headed by sea to Malaysia, but authorities have strengthened maritime patrols to prevent illegal entry by foreigners over fears they could be carrying the virus.
Rohingya arrive in Malaysia
Rohingya usually travel either from Myanmar or Bangladesh, where about one million live in squalid refugee camps.
Most of those fled a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar and thousands have tried to reach other more affluent Asian nations even if it means risky voyages on crowded, rickety boats.
On Monday a coastguard vessel spotted a suspected migrant boat off the northwest island of Langkawi, and was set to push it out to international waters, authorities said. But as the coastguards approached, 53 Rohingya jumped into the sea and were detained.
They are put in deplorable conditions yet Malaysia tells them “they are lucky to be in Malaysia, at least they’re alive”.
We need the political will to act better.
Detained Rohingya Are Being Mistreated in Malaysia & We Need To Talk About It https://t.co/hpratuSSZv
— Pakatan Belia Kesaksamaan Gender (@Belia4GE) June 8, 2020
On inspecting the boat, authorities found another 216 Rohingya and the body of a dead woman, according to a statement from a task force overseeing maritime patrols.
“Investigations also revealed the boat was intentionally damaged and… could not be repaired,” the statement said, adding this “resulted in the push-back effort being halted”.
Food and water were provided to the migrants and the boat was taken to Langkawi, where all 269 were detained, it said.
Rohingya displaced at sea and turned away
Authorities did not say where the vessel started its journey, or how long it had been at sea. In April, Malaysia intercepted and turned back a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya, sparking calls from rights groups for the government to soften its stance. Malaysia says it has turned back 22 boats trying to enter the country illegally since the start of May.
The Southeast Asian nation has long been a favourite destination for Rohingya as it is Muslim-majority and already home to a large number of them. In recent months, hundreds of Rohingya have been rescued off Bangladesh after being stranded for long periods on boats. In April, two survivors said that 60 Rohingya died on a boat crammed with hundreds of people stranded in the Bay of Bengal, after Malaysia and Thailand both denied it entry.
In what the United Nations (UN) has referred to as a risky ‘sport of human ping pong’, the displaced Rohingyas at sea are oscillating from one country to another in hopes of gaining entry to Malaysia or Thailand since February this year. While some were rescued by the coast guard when the boats had returned to Bangladesh in mid-April and early May, the apprehensions remained that more such trawlers are still at sea being denied access owing to the COVID19 scare.
The few hundreds of displaced Rohingyas rescued were severely emaciated, dehydrated and could barely walk due to a shortage of food and water. Several of them had died in the boat and their bodies were disposed off at sea.
Atrocities faced by Rohingya Muslims
The Rohingya have been named “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations, following a wave of atrocities unseen since genocides in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the state authorities refused to recognize the Rohingya identity – a name adopted by a group of the descendants of both Arakan State Muslims and later migrants to Burma. The Rohingya were excluded from the Myanmar constitution and in 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law that denied the Rohingya people citizenship.
To this day, the Rohingya are considered non-citizens and illegal immigrants. Not being recognized under the law, they lack basic rights such as access to social services or education, and their movement outside of Rakhine State is closely restricted. Myanmar has also imposed strict regulations that restrict the Rohingya from marrying and having children.
For Rohingya that arrived in Malaysia, the situation hasn’t been much better.
Dozens of human rights groups have called on Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to address hate speech and violent threats against Rohingya refugees in the country amid a slew of online posts threatening murder and sexual violence.
Monday’s open letter, signed by 83 organisations, said the surge in hateful messages attacking the Rohingya community was causing fear of physical violence and discrimination among the refugees.
Signatories included Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International Malaysia, Article 19 and the International Commission of Jurists.
The online posts directed at the Rohingya in the country included discriminatory and dehumanising language and images, with some users threatening prominent Rohingya activists as well as their supporters with murder and sexual violence, the groups said.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk