On June 8, 2020, Malaysian authorities detained 269 Rohingya refugees who arrived on a damaged boat off Malaysia’s coast at Langkawi. A second boat with an estimated 300 Rohingya remains at sea near Thailand’s Koh Adang island, according to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
Both boats left from Bangladesh in February, meaning that the hundreds of ethnic Rohingya on board have been at sea for four months without access to adequate food and water. On a previous boat of Rohingya bound for Malaysia that was rescued by the Bangladesh coast guard, as many as 100 may have died on board as a result of the deplorable conditions.
“Southeast Asian governments are callously passing the buck on protecting Rohingya refugees desperate for sanctuary and a future after Myanmar’s military drove them from their homes with mass atrocities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While Myanmar remains ultimately responsible for the Rohingya refugees’ plight, Malaysia and Thailand should stop wearing blinders about the immediate risks and suffering that they face at sea.”
Malaysian officials who intercepted the boat carrying Rohingya on June 8 intended to return it to international waters, but a damaged engine prevented the pushback. Approximately 50 refugees jumped off the boat and swam to shore, where they were detained, while the boat with the remaining passengers was towed to Langkawi. The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency arrested them on arrival and has detained them at the Nation Building Camp center.
The director-general of the maritime agency said that only 70 percent of the detained Rohingya were able to walk when they arrived due to the harsh boat conditions and lack of adequate food and water.
Malaysian authorities have not yet responded to the request from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for access to the recently arrived Rohingya to provide urgent humanitarian assistance and assess whether they qualify for refugee status, a UN spokesperson said. Malaysia should immediately grant UNHCR access to the Rohingya and seek alternatives to detention for all asylum seekers in custody.
A second vessel that left Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, at the same time remains at sea, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency reported, allegedly having been pushed back by Malaysian authorities over “many attempts to enter Malaysian waters.” The maritime agency’s director-general said that the boat carrying 300 people is stranded in waters off of Thailand’s Koh Adang, after Malaysian and Thai authorities provided it with food and fuel. But Thailand has rejected the claim. “I don’t see any reports that we spotted [Rohingya boats],” a Thai naval officer told BenarNews.
Malaysian Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that Malaysia intended to return the detained Rohingya to Bangladesh: “The Rohingya should know, if they come here, they cannot stay.” Bangladesh, which hosts nearly a million Rohingya refugees, has refused. “Bangladesh is neither obligated nor in a position to take any more Rohingya,” said Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen on June 9. “Rohingyas are not Bangladesh citizens. They are the residents of Myanmar for centuries.”
From January to March, numerous boats, each with hundreds of Rohingya refugees, left the overcrowded, flood-prone camps in Cox’s Bazar for Malaysia. Over the past two months, Malaysian authorities have repeatedly turned away boats of asylum seekers attempting to land, leaving hundreds of Rohingya in life-threatening conditions at sea, contrary to international search and rescue obligations. Several boats returned to Bangladesh, with some refugees sent to quarantine in the camps while over 300 have been confined in dangerous conditions on the remote silt island of Bhasan Char.
Malaysia has ramped up control of its borders in response to Covid-19, prohibiting foreigners from entering the country. According to Minister Ismail Sabri, authorities have blocked the arrival of 22 boats since May 1.
Under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. Subjecting those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine may be reasonable. But the pandemic does not justify a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress, risking the right to life of those on board. Malaysia’s pushback policy also violates international obligations to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they would face a risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
All countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, have the responsibility to respond to boats in distress, enact or coordinate rescue operations, and ensure timely disembarkation in a safe port, Human Rights Watch said.
In May, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released a statement expressing concern regarding the growing number of pushbacks of Rohingya refugee boats in the region. The groups said:
Deterring movements of people by endangering life is not only ineffective; it violates basic human rights, the law of the sea and the principles of customary international law by which all States are equally bound. We call on States in the region to uphold the commitments of the 2016 Bali Declaration as well as ASEAN pledges to protect the most vulnerable and to leave no one behind. Not doing so may jeopardize thousands of lives of smuggled or trafficked persons, including the hundreds of Rohingya currently at sea. Saving lives must be the first priority.
In February, the Task Force on Planning and Preparedness of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime made a commitment to saving lives when responding to “irregular maritime migration.” Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Bangladesh are all members.
Responsibility for the security of the Rohingya rests primarily with the Myanmar government, but extends to the countries where they seek refuge, Human Rights Watch said. About 900,000 Rohingya are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, most of whom fled Myanmar since August 2017 to escape the military’s crimes against humanity and possible genocide.
The estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State in Myanmar are subject to government persecution and violence, confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, and cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods. Southeast Asian governments should collectively press Myanmar to improve conditions in Rakhine State, address the causes underlying the crisis, and start cooperating with international institutions.
“In the face of a global pandemic, governments should demonstrate their recognition of a shared humanity and a common goal of protection and health,” Adams said. “Instead of pushing Rohingya back to sea to die, Southeast Asian countries should be working together on plans for rescuing boats, providing aid, and opening the door to international protection.”