Malaysia has launched a search operation for 24 Rohingya refugees who are feared to have drowned off the northern island of Langkawi while trying to swim ashore from a boat.
Zawawi Abdullah, a senior official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, said only one of 25 Rohingya men who jumped off the boat on July 25 managed to swim to safety.
The lone survivor has sought the help of the coast guard and is being quizzed, Zawawi said.
Muslim-majority Malaysia is a preferred destination for the Rohingya, who face persecution in their Buddhist homeland of Myanmar.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar since a 2017 military crackdown and most now live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh.
They often fall victim to traffickers who lure them with the promise of a better life abroad, and many perish while being transported by boats.
Zawawi said two vessels and an aircraft had been pressed into service to trace the missing men on July 26. He added that authorities in neighboring Thailand have been tipped off about the tragedy.
Last month Malaysian authorities detained 269 Rohingya refugees. The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency later said that the refugees were rescued from a vessel, and many died on board and their bodies were thrown into the sea.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Malaysia could not accept any more Rohingya refugees due to an ongoing economic slowdown. However, he said those detained refugees would not be sent back out to the sea.
Malaysia is reported to be home to more than two million immigrants, including 101,000 Rohingya, who are registered with the UN refugee agency.
Malaysia recently stopped welcoming Rohingya due to the spread of the coronavirus.
A high court in Malaysia recently set aside 27 Rohingya men's caning — ordered by a lower court — and asked the government to hand over the refugees to the UN refugee agency.
In June, a court in Langkawi sentenced 40 Rohingya refugees to seven months in jail for illegally entering the country by boat.
In another incident, a court turned down a case against 51 Rohingya minors who were accused of violating immigration laws.
Under Malaysia's Immigration Act, illegal immigrants face a fine of 10,000 ringgit (US$2,345), a jail term of up to five years and six strokes of the cane.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague is probing allegations of genocide against Myanmar over its mistreatment of the Rohingya.
On July 22, US-based Human Rights Watch asked the Malaysian government to stop prosecuting Rohingya refugees as they are "protected in accordance with international law."
Human Rights Watch regards the stateless Rohingya as refugees on a prima facie basis because of the persecution suffered by them.
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