More than two dozen Rohingya refugees were found alive on an island in northern Malaysia, the coast guard said Monday, putting to rest earlier reports they may have drowned while trying to swim ashore from a boat that brought them to area waters.
Twenty-six Rohingya were discovered late Sunday hiding in bushes on Rebak Besar, after locals spotted a Rohingya man on the islet earlier in the day, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said in a statement. The man told officers about the other 26 Rohingya, officials said.
“[The man] was brought to the MMEA office at Bukit Malut for further investigation and, based on the further information retrieved, he informed the authorities that there were 26 more still in hiding at the island,” First Admiral Mohd Zawawi Abdullah, the local coast guard commander, said in a statement.
An investigation revealed that some local fishermen were working with a human smuggling syndicate as “transporters” by using their boats to help bring the migrants to nearby Langkawi Island from a larger boat, he said.
“We are very frustrated with some of the locals who were willing to do anything for money without any concern over the country’s security and sovereignty,” Zawawi said.
“Our investigations revealed that the syndicate had smuggled in the migrants by unloading them from the mother boat anchored near the country’s border onto local fishermen boats to throw the authorities off their tracks,” he added.
The statement from the MMEA did not say whether the coast guard had pinpointed the approximate location of the so-called mother ship or if it was searching for the vessel.
Ships from the coast guard and the Royal Malaysian Navy were sent to Rebak Besar to pick up the Rohingya and bring them to Bukit Malut on Langkawi. There, the migrants underwent a COVID-19 screening before being handed over to the Immigration Department, officials said.
Meanwhile, in a statement issued on Monday, a task force overseeing the country’s borders warned that nationals who help smuggle in undocumented migrants could be prosecuted for treason.
The MMEA earlier on Sunday had launched a search-and-rescue operation for some two dozen Rohingya who were feared to have drowned after the authorities found the first Rohingya man, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
The discovery came less than a week after authorities found 25 other Rohingya at a safe house on Langkawi where smugglers were allegedly hiding them, officials said at the time.
Two Rohingya were arrested on July 21 on suspicion of smuggling in the 25 refugees who had set sail from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, a Malaysian security source told BenarNews.
An investigation was under way to determine if there were any links between the two Rohingya groups, authorities said Monday.
Cox’s Bazar and a neighboring district are home to camps housing more than 1 million stateless Rohingya refugees who fled persecution and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, is a main destination in Southeast Asia for Rohingya refugees seeking work opportunities or asylum.
Reacting Monday to news that the latest group of Rohingya refugees had not drowned as initially feared, Amnesty International called on Malaysia, neighboring Thailand and other Southeast Asian government to search for more Rohingya believed to be at sea.
“The situation of remaining Rohingya refugees still stranded at sea for months is desperate. ASEAN governments must immediately launch coordinated search and rescue missions for remaining survivors; allow all boats carrying refugees and migrants to land safely in the nearest country; and meet their humanitarian needs,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a researcher for Amnesty’s Malaysian office, said in a statement.
“Unless this happens, more lives will inevitably be lost.”