KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Thirty-five people, believed to be Rohingya Muslims abandoned at sea, were found safe on a Malaysian beach on Friday, officials said, part of what authorities fear could be a new wave of dangerous people smuggling by sea.
In recent months, dozens of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh have boarded boats to try to reach Malaysia, raising worries of a fresh wave of dangerous sea voyages after a 2015 crackdown on people smugglers.
Nine children were among the 35 migrants found stranded on a beach in the northern state of Perlis on Friday, Malaysian police said. The group had been lowered from a fishing boat offshore in the early hours of the morning, Perlis police chief Noor Mushar Mohamad said.
“They were released in the middle of the ocean so that they could reach the shore during low tide.”
All of those rescued were found to be in good health and have been transferred to immigration authorities, he said.
The group will be held at the state’s interior affairs headquarters for further investigation, Malaysia’s Immigration Department director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud told Reuters.
More than 700,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh in 2017 fleeing an army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, according to U.N. agencies.
Myanmar regards Rohingya as illegal migrants from the Indian subcontinent and has confined tens of thousands to sprawling camps in Rakhine since violence swept the area in 2012.
Officials were not able to say whether the migrants found on Friday had arrived from Myanmar or Bangladesh.
Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project monitoring group, said two boats were reported to have left Bangladesh in recent weeks.
“Many refugees are desperate to leave the precarity, insecurity and hopelessness in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, in particular those with relatives in Malaysia. And they have no other way to do so other than undertaking risky journeys by boat, and this, in spite of the vigilance by Bangladesh security forces,” she said.
The latest departures come as Myanmar prepares to take some of the refugees back after agreeing with Bangladesh to start repatriations on Nov. 15, despite widespread opposition from Rohingya, who say they will not return without guarantees of basic rights, including citizenship and freedom of movement.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar by sea following an outbreak of sectarian violence in Rakhine in 2012. That exodus peaked in 2015, when an estimated 25,000 people fled across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, many drowning in unsafe and overloaded boats.
Reporting by Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR and Poppy McPherson in BANGKOK; Editing by Peter Graff