Once their damaged boat is fixed, 269 Rohingya refugees now docked in Malaysia will be sent back out to sea if officials follow through with their current plan, sparking an outcry from rights groups.
Reuters, citing two security sources, reported on Thursday that Malaysia had previously asked Bangladesh to take back the refugees, who have been detained since their June 8 arrival, but Bangladeshi officials rejected the request. The sources said authorities have drawn up plans to push the refugees back out with food and water, but “no decision has been made yet.”
“Sending them back out to sea is just throwing them into a killing field… We don't know how many have died in the sea,” Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told VICE. He added that accepting the 269 new refugees would make no difference to Malaysia, which has hosted more than 150,000 Rohingya refugees in recent years.
One Rohingya woman was found dead on the boat, Reuters reported, and rights groups say more died of starvation while stranded at sea for months. Seventy percent of the Rohingya who were on the boat were unable to walk properly after sitting and squatting aboard the boar for months, according to BenarNews.
In a similar incident in mid-April, a vessel adrift for two months was rescued by Bangladesh—396 were saved, but at least 24 died on the journey, Al Jazeera reported at the time.
Malaysia announced in recent months that it would no longer accept Rohingya refugees due to tightened border controls aimed at curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has since turned away at least two boats and detained hundreds of Rohingya already in the country.
At least three boats filled with Rohingya refugees still remain somewhere at sea. Traffickers also have been known to hold Rohingya refugees at sea, demanding payments from their families to release them. Hundreds have died trying to get to Malaysia, with some buried in mass graves when their families could not afford increasing trafficking fees, the New York Times reported.
Liz Day, who spent years as an Emergency & Aid Coordinator for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, told VICE that nobody is addressing that countries who push back refugees are essentially “engaging in informal deportation to traffickers.” The countries instead cite immigration, economic, or national security concerns while depriving basic necessities to the refugees, she added.
The coronavirus crisis has heightened concerns in Malaysia over asylum seekers, with fears of transmission stoking xenophobia.
Day said she has noticed a “shocking” amount of online hate speech from Malaysians about the Rohingya refugees, as well as several anti-Rohingya groups and personal blogs.
Nay San Lwin, of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told VICE that people in Southeast Asia should show their solidarity with the Rohingya by asking their governments to take action against Myanmar.
“ASEAN must break its non-interference policy to stop the gravest international crime committed by Myanmar,” he said. “All ASEAN member countries have equal responsibility to stop this genocide. Expel Myanmar from ASEAN if Myanmar is not willing to stop ongoing genocide.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are also among the rights groups to condemn Malaysia’s plan to send the Rohingya people back to sea.
“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,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said in a statement that it is “heinous” to have the Rohingya repeat a deadly journey.
“These people had already drifted for months with nowhere to land—how could Malaysia force them back into this life-threatening situation?” she said.