Rohingya refugees rest in a police station before being returned to the camps in Cox’s Bazar on May 15, 2019, after they were rescued from going on a sea voyage to Malaysia. (Photo: Suzauddin Rubel/AFP)
Malaysian authorities have detained 269 Rohingya refugees who attempted to land in the Muslim-majority nation on June 8.
The body of a woman was also found aboard the vessel, whose engine had been damaged beyond repair, officials said.
Malaysian authorities said the damage had been inflicted purposefully by the asylum seekers so that their boat could not be towed back out to sea.
Boats filled with Rohingya asylum seekers have previously been turned back from Malaysian coastal waters and towed back out to sea.
In April, Malaysian authorities turned back a boat filled with some 200 Rohingya asylum seekers. The same month 60 Rohingya people died on a boat carrying hundreds of people. The boat had become stranded in the Bay of Bengal after both Malaysia and Thailand denied it entry.
The incidents prompted rights activists to call on Malaysia to allow Rohingya refugees to enter the country. Those calls have fallen on deaf ears, however. Since the beginning of May, Malaysia has turned back 22 boats trying to enter the country illegally, according to local officials.
Malaysia is a favorite destination for Rohingya Muslim asylum seekers, but local authorities do not recognize the rights of stateless Rohingya migrants to political asylum. The country has beefed up its coastal patrols to ensure no migrants could reach the country by sea unauthorized.
Indonesia and Thailand have also turned back boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers who set sail from Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled from Myanmar in 2017 during what observers described as large-scale ethnic cleansing.
In Bangladesh hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to languish in squalor in overcrowded camps and their chance of ever returning to their homes in Myanmar seems increasingly remote. Many of them seek to try their luck by taking to sea and seeking a new home elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Rights activists have warned that hundreds of Rohingya migrants, who fled their homes in Myanmar during a state-orchestrated military campaign, may have been stuck at sea with no country willing to grant them asylum. Last month rights group Amnesty International said that up to 1,000 Rohingya were stranded at sea, warning that many may die and wind up in an “invisible graveyard.”
Last month Khadiza Begum, a 50-year-old Rohingya woman, told international media about her plight among 396 fellow Rohingya Muslims who had tried to reach Malaysia. The asylum seekers were returned to Bangladeshi waters after their boat had been stranded at sea for two months.
“Nobody knows how many people have died. It could be 50 or even more,” she recalled.
Human smugglers often prey on Rohingya asylum seekers by promising to take them to specific destinations but then abandoning them at sea, rights activists say.
The latest boatload of Rohingya refugees was spotted in Malaysian waters by a coastguard vessel on June 8 off the northwest island of Langkawi. The coastguard was getting ready to tow the boat out to international waters, but 53 Rohingya asylum seekers jumped into the sea and swam ashore. They were detained.
A subsequent inspection of the boat revealed another 216 Rohingya on board as well as the body of a woman who had died at sea, according to Malaysian officials.
The Rohingya people aboard the rickety boat are believed to have fled from a sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, a town on the southeast coast of Bangladesh, in February, according to Malaysian officials.
“Nine [crew members] fled after the boat entered Malaysia,” a Malaysian security source was quoted as saying by AFP. “The boat is believed to have carried 500 Rohingya when it departed Bangladesh but only 269 were found.”