Bangladesh has said it will not take back nearly 300 Rohingya who were detained by Malaysia after their boat was found drifting off the country’s northwestern island of Langkawi, as hostility towards the mostly Muslim refugees continues to grow.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said his country was “neither obligated nor in a position to take any more Rohingya” and urged the global community to help relocate the more than one million Rohingya who fled there after a brutal crackdown in their native Myanmar in 2017.
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On Tuesday, Malaysia’s Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had suggested that the rescued refugees should be sent back to Bangladesh.
“The Rohingya should know, if they come here, they cannot stay,” the minister told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
Sabri said Malaysia’s foreign ministry would ask Dhaka to take back the detained refugees if they were found to have fled the refugee camps, while the government would also ask the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to resettle the group in a third country.
Malaysia does not recognise refugee status but was often a destination for ethnic Rohingya, even before the 2017 crackdown.
As of February 2020, UNHCR had registered an estimated 180,000 refugees in Malaysia, about half of whom were Rohingya. The agency is allowed to operate in the country by the government and registers those it considers in need of protection.
‘Drive factors’ of migration
On Monday, the 269 Rohingya were arrested after their boat was found, damaged. The body of a woman was also retrieved. Malaysian authorities said the boat had been deliberately damaged to prevent it from being turned back to its port of origin.
According to Benar News, nine crew members fled after the boat entered Malaysian waters. It added that boat may have carried as many as 500 Rohingya when it departed Bangladesh, but only 269 were found, including those who initially jumped overboard but were later rescued.
In recent months, Malaysia had announced that it would no longer accept Rohingya refugees after tightening borders and stepping up patrols to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Thomas Daniel, a foreign policy and security expert at the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), wrote on Twitter that the “driver factors” for the refugees to reach Malaysia were “stronger than any deterrence” the government “can (or seem willing to) muster”.
“Malaysia is officially very tough on undocumented arrivals (and those already here), but this hasn’t had much of an impact on arrivals,” he wrote, noting that boats had also arrived in 2015.
Rohingya have encountered increasing harassment in Malaysia in recent months.
Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, president of MAPIM, an Islamic consultative council in Malaysia, on Tuesday condemned as “outrageous” images circulating online showing a mosque and community centre in the southern state of Johor with banners reading, “We are not welcoming Rohingya” and “We don’t need you here.”
“We are upset that hate sentiment like this wants to be born from the Islamic worship house that is the to be the protector and enforcer to the Islamic law,” Hamid said in a statement.
The number of resettlement places around the world remains extremely limited, and UNHCR told Reuters that it was probably not an option for most refugees.
“For refugees to be able to live a life in safety and with dignity until such time that they are able to return home again or find home in another country, what they need is to have protection in the country where they are seeking asylum,” the agency said in an emailed response to the news agency.