Malaysia plans to expel 269 Rohingya refugees who were detained by local authorities after their disabled boat was towed in and allowed to land for repairs at Langkawi Island, the country’s defense chief said Tuesday.
The government intended to contact Bangladesh officials to determine whether the boat that arrived on Monday had sailed in from Cox’s Bazar, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob said, referring to a southeastern Bangladeshi district where stateless Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been sheltering in sprawling camps.
If that is the case, then Malaysia will deport them Rohingya to Bangladesh, he warned.
“We have made a decision that we will not allow them to be in the country,” Ismail Sabri told reporters.
“We will ask the Foreign Ministry to discuss with Bangladesh if those who arrived on Monday were from Cox Bazar, then, we will send them back. Maybe we will ask them to be placed at the settlements created by the Bangladesh government for the Rohingya,” he said during a daily press briefing on the Malaysian government’s management of the coronavirus outbreak.
The defense chief added that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would also be asked to contact UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, “so that we can send them to a third country.”
But late Tuesday, Bangladesh’s foreign minister rejected the idea that Malaysia could send the people on the boat back to his country.
“Rohingyas are the citizens of Myanmar and Malaysia should send Rohingyas to Myanmar instead of Bangladesh. Otherwise, they (Malaysia) can keep Rohingyas in their own country,” Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews.
“We will take in no more Rohingya,” he said, adding they were not Bangladesh’s responsibility and Malaysian authorities had not yet contacted his government about the boat that arrived at Langkawi the day before.
On Monday, Malaysia’s coast guard tried to intercept the ship and push it back to international waters off Langkawi, but 53 people on board jumped into the sea and swam toward the island, the government’s National Task Force said in a statement.
The coast guard towed the boat to a local dock for repairs after discovering engine damage and holes in the boat. The authorities also detained all 269 passengers, including those who swam to shore, the task force said in its statement. The Rohingya were being held at a detention center on Langkawi, according to the task force.
The landing marked the first time that Malaysia had allowed a boat carrying Rohingya refugees to disembark on its territory after the country sealed its borders more than two months ago to guard against the further spread of the coronavirus.
“Upon inspection on the vessel, 216 Rohingya illegal immigrants along with one remains of a deceased illegal immigrant woman were found on the vessel,” the taskforce said in its statement.
However on Tuesday, Malaysian government officials did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews seeking clarification on whether hundreds more Rohingya had been on the boat when it set sail. The statement from the task force only mentioned 269 Rohingya and did not say whether the boat had sailed from Cox’s Bazar.
On Monday, a senior Malaysian security official told BenarNews that the people aboard the boat were believed to have sailed from the Bangladeshi district in February.
“The boat is believed to have carried 500 Rohingya when it departed Bangladesh but only 269 were found,” said the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the matter.
Also on Monday, a Malaysian daily, Harian Metro, quoted a source as saying that the boat had sailed from Cox’s Bazar. The boat was believed to have carried more than 500 ethnic Rohingya, and “200 of them reportedly died during the voyage, but authorities are still investigating the matter,” Harian Metro reported, citing information from the anonymous source.
On Tuesday, officials at two local NGOs involved in refugee affairs told BenarNews that the boat which arrived in Langkawi was one of two boats that had left Bangladesh in February. The boats were carrying 700 to 800 refugees between them, according to an official with one of the NGOs.
“There is another boat still at sea. They were separated,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears about personal safety.
Meanwhile, the interim head of the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International, commented on the discovery of the Rohingya woman’s corpse aboard the boat that was allowed to land in Langkawi.
“It is terrible that a woman’s body was found on board – it’s clear this boat was adrift and failing to find a safe shore until then. For one person, this rescue came too late,” Preethi Bhardwaj said.
She commended the Malaysian authorities for allowing the boat to land on Monday, calling it a humane step.
“Boats carrying people in distress must always be allowed to land safely. They must not be pushed away, threatened or intimidated,” she said.
Jesmin Papri in Dhaka and Ray Sherman in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.