Malaysia detained three Rohingya boats in recent weeks in addition to the one it brought ashore on June 8, a Thai marine police commander told BenarNews on Wednesday, citing information from local fishermen, but a senior Malaysian security official denied this.
As many as six Rohingya boats were in Malaysian waters near Thailand â€œuntil last week,â€ according to Pol. Lt. Col. Banjerd Manawesh, an official in Satun, the southernmost province on Thailandâ€™s west coast. He said his information came from local fishermen and news reports.
â€œThree weeks ago, until last week, there were six boats in Malaysian territory, heading south, about 12 miles from Lipe Island,â€ Banjerd said, referring to a Thai island in the Strait of Malacca just north of Malaysia.
â€œWe believe they were destined to Malaysia but Malaysia blocked them,â€ he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Two of the boats headed for Indonesia, one was brought ashore by Malaysian boats and â€œthree other boats were detained,â€ he said.
A senior Malaysian security official denied this, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.
â€œNo such thing. The last boat that docked here was the one in Langkawi recently,â€ the official said when asked about the three boats.
On June 6, Malaysian authorities towed a disabled boat ashore and detained 269 Rohingya after dozens jumped overboard and began swimming to Langkawi, an island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia. The landing marked the first time that Rohingya had been allowed to disembark in Malaysia for more than two months.
Two days later, Malaysian coast guard chief Mohd Zubil Mat Som said that another Rohingya boat carrying 300 people was sheltering north of Langkawi off the Thai island of Koh Adang. Malaysian boats had blocked its entry multiple times, he said. But Thailandâ€™s navy said it had found no such boat.
Subsequent calls and messages to Malaysiaâ€™s Maritime Enforcement Agency, the countryâ€™s coast guard, went unanswered.
The security official who spoke to BenarNews on Wednesday acknowledged that the boat in question was no longer at Koh Adang, based on drone surveillance and air patrols.
â€œIt might be in the Andaman Sea again or heading to Aceh, Indonesia. Thatâ€™s the nearest location,â€ the source said. He said Malaysia would work with Thai maritime officials to find the boat.
â€˜There are more boatsâ€™
Many countries in the region have closed their borders to foreigners in recent months due to fears of the spread of COVID-19.
Rights groups have raised alarms about the impact of such policies on boatloads of Rohingya refugees and other migrants who typically travel to hubs for migrant workers at this time of year.
In April, hundreds of Rohingya men, women and children were said to be starving when brought ashore in Bangladesh following a nearly two-month failed journey to Malaysia during which dozens died, officials and survivors said.
In Bangkok, human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights called on Asian countries to allow Rohingya boats to land, one of many rights groups to do so in recent weeks.
â€œCountries in the region should urgently allow Rohingya refugees and trafficking survivors to disembark. Rohingya people are genocide survivors and need protection, not to be left to die at sea,â€ Putthanee Kangkun, a researcher with the group, told BenarNews last week.
â€œWe know there are more boats at sea,â€ she added.
Malaysia has acknowledged preventing more than two dozen boats from landing in its territory since May 1, although authorities did not specify what kind of boats they were.
At a press conference Wednesday, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that between May 1 and June 16, Malaysia had detained 850 migrants trying to enter the country, arrested 153 boat skippers, 12 suspected traffickers â€œand 18 boats.â€
Hishammuddin Hussein, the countryâ€™s foreign minister, seemed to push back at criticism of Malaysiaâ€™s current stance on Rohingya refugees.
â€œWhat we have done for the Rohingya since before, if we look at it carefully, is not small,Â and those who lived in Malaysia are in the hundreds of thousands. The promises made by third countries to fund their food and stay in Malaysia never materialized. So it is not fair for them to label Malaysia as inhuman. The problem with Rohingya has to be solved at the source,â€ he said.
The Rohingya are a stateless and persecuted minority in Myanmar, where waves of violence against them have sent more than one million of them fleeing into southeastern Bangladesh where they are confined in sprawling refugee camps.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-afiliated news service.