KUALA LUMPUR (AFP, REUTERS, THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A boat carrying dozens of Rohingya from Myanmar arrived in Malaysia on Tuesday (April 3) and the members of the stateless Muslim minority will be allowed to enter the country, authorities said.
The vessel carrying 56 people was intercepted by Malaysian maritime authorities near the northwestern island of Langkawi, said navy chief Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin.
Its arrival came as fears grow about conditions in overcrowded camps for the minority fleeing violence in Myanmar.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have sought shelter in southern Bangladesh since Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown last August.
“All 56 passengers, mostly children and women, are safe, but tired and hungry,” said the navy chief. “The boat and its passengers will be handed over... to the immigration authorities.”
On Tuesday, Maritime Northern Region director First Admiral Rozali Mohd Said said its operations had been increased in the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea since Sunday (April 1), The Star reported.
Two ships and four boats had been deployed for detection purposes in the northern region waters.
A boat carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees trying to reach Malaysia had briefly stopped on the Thai island of Koh Lanta on Sunday (April 1) along the Andaman coast. Thai authorities had questioned those on board and determined they were all Rohingya. It was not immediately clear if it was the same vessel allowed to dock in Malaysia.
Media reports said Thai authorities pressed the Rohingya to return to their vessel and continue their trip. Local villagers reportedly gave the group food and other supplies.
Earlier on Tuesday, The Nation online reported that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Monday (April 2) voiced concern over the 56 Rohingya boat people who landed in Thailand on Sunday.
Members of the persecuted minority were found early on Sunday morning in an area between Koh Ha and Koh Lanta in Krabi province on the Andaman Sea coast.
After interrogation by Thai authorities, the group, consisting of 19 men, 18 women, eight boys and 11 girls, were returned to their boat in Koh Lanta.
The boat reportedly departed the coast of central Rakhine state in Myanmar last week. Given poor weather conditions in the waters off the west coast of the Thailand-Malaysia border, there were substantial concerns for the safety of the refugees.
“If they are found to be in distress, we hope they will be rescued and allowed to disembark in accordance with international maritime law,” the UN refugee agency told The Nation.
The refugee agency is in contact with Malaysian maritime authorities and “stands ready to support authorities in providing any necessary assistance to refugees upon disembarkation”, agency staff said.
Police Colonel ML Pattanachak Chakrabandhu, superintendent at Koh Lanta police station, told Nation TV that the boat left Rakhine state in Myanmar, where the Rohingya face heavy persecution by local authorities, with the goal of reaching Malaysia.
They docked in the southern Thailand because of bad weather. An initial investigation found only Rohingya in the boat and no signs of human trafficking, Pattanachak added.
However, police commissioner General Chakthip Chaijinda said a further investigation would be needed if evidence of human trafficking were found.
“If is only a transit area and any Thai person is found to be involved, whether they be police officers or whoever, they would need to be prosecuted,” Chakthip said.
“If they are found to be involved, they would need to be expelled only.”
Police officers in Bangladesh also said the boat had not departed from its shores, where close to 1 million refugees live in congested camps, according to an Agence France-Presse report.
“The boat didn’t leave from Bangladesh,” said Afrujul Haq Tutul, deputy police chief in Cox’s Bazar district, where most Rohingya camps are located. “But in light of the news, we are investigating the matter.”
Longstanding persecution in Rakhine state, described by the UN as “genocide” against religious and ethnic minorities, has forced the Rohingya to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Rohingya previously tried to resettle in Thailand as well, but the country has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not recognise the status of refugees, leaving them vulnerable to threats, especially human trafficking.