KUALA LUMPUR • Dozens of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar arrived on a boat in Malaysia yesterday and will be allowed to enter the country on humanitarian grounds, the authorities said.
The boat was intercepted off the north-western island of Langkawi after it was first spotted at the weekend off Thailand, said Malaysian navy chief Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin.
"All 56 passengers, mostly children and women, are safe but tired and hungry," he said.
"We have provided them with water, food and other humanitarian assistance. The boat and its passengers will be handed over... to the immigration authorities."
The coast guard said there were 19 men, 17 women, 12 girls and eight boys on the boat.
It has been rare for Rohingya migrants to attempt sea routes going south since the Thai authorities clamped down on regional trafficking networks in 2015, sparking a crisis across South-east Asia as large numbers were abandoned at sea.
But there have been concerns that desperate migrants might start taking to the high seas again after Myanmar, a mainly Buddhist country, launched a new crackdown last year that forced about 700,000 members of the stateless Muslim minority to flee to Bangladesh.
The Malaysian navy and coast guard had stepped up patrols around Langkawi - where Rohingya have come ashore in the past - after the boat was spotted off Thailand's west coast at the weekend and its passengers said they were trying to reach Malaysia.
Two ships and four boats had been deployed in the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea since Sunday, said the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency's northern region director Rozali Mohd Said.
The boat arrived off Thailand's western coast in Krabi province early on Sunday, due to bad weather. Images showed the passengers being interviewed on shore and then getting back into the boat before departing. Local villagers gave the group food and other supplies.
Ms Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, said the vessel was thought to have sailed a week ago from the Rakhine state capital Sittwe. But she did not expect many more to be following. "April is the end of the sailing season, so we don't expect many boats now," she said.
The 2015 crisis began when Thailand discovered mass graves in a human-trafficking camp along its southern border and launched a crackdown on the brutal networks that ferry migrants to Malaysia.
Unable to offload their human cargo in Thailand, traffickers abandoned the migrants at sea, leaving them trapped on boats with little food and water.
Images of emaciated Rohingya pleading for help from overcrowded boats drew global condemnation, and forced Indonesia and Malaysia to allow hundreds of Rohingya to come ashore after initially refusing them entry.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favourite destination for Rohingya, as the country is relatively affluent and the authorities are sympathetic to their plight.
Tens of thousands have been allowed into the country, where they work in low-skilled industries such as agriculture and construction.
The situation is, however, much worse for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled because of the latest crackdown in their homeland. They are living in cramped and often squalid conditions in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, where many Rohingya who fled previous waves of persecution are already living.
An agreement to repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar's Rakhine state has yet to see a single refugee returned.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK