Malaysia has turned away two boats with up to 800 Rohingya Muslims, insisting that Myanmar must end its oppression of this minority group.
With 1,158 refugees, mainly Rohingyas from Myanmar but some from Bangladesh as well, landing in Langkawi on Sunday and an estimated 6,000 more still drifting at sea, Malaysia insisted yesterday that the illegal migrants must be sent back home, as it stepped up patrols on its north-western coast.
"We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They... cannot be so oppressive," Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
He also told Reuters that Myanmar "is not at war", so "if there is nothing wrong with the ship, they should sail back to their own country".
The Rohingyas - many of whom are stateless - have been fleeing civil strife in the Rakhine region of Myanmar in the wake of conflicts with the Buddhist majority. Malaysia's stance has been criticised by human rights groups and the United Nations, which has warned that the situation could develop into a massive humanitarian crisis.
The UN refugee agency in Malaysia told The Straits Times the 1,158 asylum seekers have been moved to detention centres in Kedah. They hope to join more than 150,000 predominantly Myanmar refugees already registered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These include more than 45,000 Rohingyas, one of the largest groups outside their home country.
These refugees have no access to legal work but often work informally in sectors such as construction and plantations and are vulnerable to exploitation because of their uncertain legal status.
The sudden deluge of refugees trying to enter Malaysia from Myanmar and Bangladesh comes on the back of a crackdown on human trafficking camps along the border with Thailand. The smugglers are believed to have abandoned the ships bearing the migrants - some of whom have already perished at sea as Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian authorities refuse to welcome them.
Malaysia's coast guard has also raised its watch and included air patrols to prevent "any illegal intrusion", First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee told AFP. "We have doubled up our assets and manpower."
Villager Mohd Ridzuan Musa, 20, said one of the immigrants who landed on Sunday night told him that they had no choice but to jump into chest-deep water and wade to the shores of Langkawi if they did not want to be shot dead.
"The vessel captain asked them to jump, saying that he had a gun and would shoot them. A small boat then came to pick the captain up and it sped off," The Star quoted him as saying.
A local Rohingya rights group has called on ASEAN - which Malaysia chairs this year - to meet and find a solution or "two million Rohingyas will become boat people".
"Their lives are in danger. We ask Malaysia to actually find the boats in the ocean and save these human beings," Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia president Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani told The Straits Times.
"ASEAN must protect ASEAN people and allow us to live in ASEAN."
This article was first published on May 15, 2015.
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