Bangkok, Jun 9 (efe-epa).- Malaysian authorities have arrested 269 Rohingya refugees after they tried to enter the country along its northern coast in a boat, officials said.
The boat was intercepted in the early hours of Monday by the coast guard and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, according to an official statement issued late Monday and published by state news agency Bernama.
The vessel, which was carrying Rohingyas proceeding from Myanmar along with the dead body of a woman, was apprehended while attempting to reach the coasts of the northwestern city of Langkawi.
“When the (MMEA vessel) KM Kimanis approached the boat, 53 of the Rohingyas jumped off the boat and swam ashore, but they were all arrested by MMEA personnel who were standing by on land,” the statement said.
“A check on the boat found 216 Rohingyas on board and also the body of a woman,” it added.
Bernama said that the boat’s engine had been damaged preventing the authorities from sending it back to the high seas, as they often do on similar occasions.
The last such incident took place on Apr. 17, when a boat with around 200 Rohingyas was intercepted near the coast of Langkawi and forced to go back to sea.
The refugees are seen as “illegal immigrants” by the MMEA and remain in custody.
These incidents come at a time when xenophobia against the Rohingyas has peaked in the country, and the police have even conducted raids against undocumented immigrants in areas affected by COVID-19, evoking criticism from human rights groups.
These Rohingyas “are not criminals, but asylum seekers in need of safety and protection. Malaysia’s systematic detention of migrants and refugees is shameful and illegal,” said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai lawmaker and member of the regional nonprofit ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
According to Amnesty International, around 800 Rohingyas in at least two boats have been forced to remain adrift at sea over the past two months in the Bay of Bengal after being denied entry by multiple countries over fears that they may be carrying the novel coronavirus,
However, it remains to be ascertained whether the refugees arrested on Monday were a part of those 800 people stranded at sea.
A large majority of the Rohingyas were rendered stateless after the government of Myanmar took away their citizenship in early 1990’s.
The ethnic Muslim minority group has faced official discrimination for decades, being termed illegal Bangladeshi immigrants despite having lived in the western state of Rakhine (Arakan) for generations.
In August 2017, the Myanmar military carried out a campaign to clear out Rohingyas in northern Rakhine after a string of attacks on security posts carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a rebel group of the community.
The brutal military operation, for which the Myanmar government is facing charges of genocide in the International Court of Justice at the Hague, led to around 725,000 Rohingyas fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh, where they have been living in the biggest refugee camp in the world. EFE-EPA