Malaysian villagers rescued 35 hungry Rohingya women and children who were stranded along a beach in the nation’s northernmost state on Friday, officials said, as reports surfaced that human traffickers could have dropped off the group from neighboring Thailand.
Police scrambled to the scene after receiving phone calls from local residents that they had found 26 Rohingya women and nine children covered in mud and weak while walking along the coast of Kuala Sungai Baru village in Perlis state, authorities said.
“Based on information gathered by my officers who were at the scene, a group of illegal immigrants believed to be of Rohingya descent was found by the side of the road while another group was still in the sea and assisted to the shore by the public,” state police chief Noor Mushtar Mohd said in a statement.
He said the Rohingya Muslims were believed to have been dropped off by a fishing boat before dawn Friday and were making their way through the muddy shores during low tide before they were spotted and aided by villagers, who gave them new clothes.
The Rohingya women and children were fed before they were handed over to immigration officers who transported them to the Belantik Immigration Office, about 134 km (84 miles) south, Noor Mushtar said.
Malaysia, which has a dominant Muslim-majority population, does not make any distinction between undocumented workers and refugees. The nation’s laws consider any illegal entry as a criminal offense.
Immigration officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Yante Ismail, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur, said the agency was aware of reports about the Rohingya Muslims, and would be ready to provide humanitarian assistance.
“UNHCR will be in contact with Malaysian authorities to seek access to these individuals in order to assess their protection needs,” Yante told BenarNews.
A police official in Kangar, capital of Perlis, told the Associated Press that the group was believed to have come from Thailand. The official sought anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Lilianne Fan, international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a refugee assistance organization, said it was coordinating with UNHCR and other NGOs to assist the Rohingya women and children.
“I believe we could expect to see more of this happening,” Fan said.
In 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar’s northern Rakhine during a massive military counter-offensive, which the United States and the U.N. described as ethnic cleansing. The retaliatory operation took place after Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar security outposts, sparking an exodus of refugees into Bangladesh.