KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia has denied entry to a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya due to coronavirus fears, the air force said, after news emerged this week that scores had died on another crowded vessel.
Activists are now fearful that large numbers of Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, may be trapped on boats at sea and unable to reach other countries.
The latest developments have sparked concerns of a repeat of a 2015 crisis when many Rohingya died at sea after South-east Asian nations turned their boats back following the collapse of long-established people smuggling routes.
In the latest incident, the Rohingya boat was spotted on Thursday by a Malaysian air force jet off the north-western island of Langkawi and then intercepted by two navy vessels backed by a helicopter.
Malaysian sailors gave the Rohingya food before escorting them out of the country's waters, the air force said in a statement.
"With their poor settlements and living conditions... it is strongly feared that undocumented migrants who try to enter Malaysia either by land or sea will bring (Covid-19) into the country," the statement on Thursday. It added that "maritime surveillance operations will be intensified".
The development signalled that Malaysia, which is under a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the virus after recording more than 5,000 cases and 86 deaths, is toughening its stance to deny entry to the Rohingya.
While relatively few boats carrying the minority group have arrived in Malaysia since the 2015 crisis, some have been allowed into the country. Earlier this month, 202 Rohingya landed in Langkawi and were detained.
Malaysia is a favoured destination for the migrants from Myanmar, as it is a Muslim-majority nation with a sizeable Rohingya diaspora.
Many travel on crowded, rickety boats, setting off from squalid camps near Bangladesh's border, home to nearly a million Rohingya who fled Myanmar after a military offensive in 2017.
Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights office said yesterday that the Myanmar army is carrying out "almost daily airstrikes and shelling" in western Myanmar's restive Rakhine and Chin states, where at least 32 civilians have been killed since March 23.
"It is very difficult to get precise information from Rakhine on whether the reported casualties are the result of targeting or were caught in the crossfire between the Arakan army and Myanmar army," spokesman Rupert Colville told a Geneva news briefing in response to a question.
The Arakan Army, an insurgent group seeking to create an independent territory in Rakhine state, has been battling government troops for more than a year.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS