Twenty-six Rohingya refugees, who had been feared drowned while trying to swim ashore close to the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi, have been found alive, hiding in the vegetation on a nearby islet, a senior coastguard official said on Monday.
Malaysia does not recognise refugee status, but the country is a common destination for the mostly Muslim Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom live in densely populated camps in Bangladesh after escaping a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.
Late on Saturday, one Rohingya man swam ashore from a small boat off Langkawi’s west coast. Officials had feared the rest of the group had drowned while trying to reach the beach, but they were later discovered on another small island just off the coast.
“They were found hiding in the bushes,” Mohd Zubil Mat Som, director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said in a text message to Reuters news agency.
Authorities have detained the refugees.
Two Rohingya have also been arrested for suspected trafficking in connection with the people found, Mohd Zubil said.
The refugees were believed to have transferred to a small boat to sneak into Malaysia, having travelled on a “motherboat” carrying hundreds of Rohingya from Bangladesh, the coastguard official said.
Last month, Malaysia detained 269 Rohingya who arrived in Langkawi, the main island of an archipelago of some 100 islands in the Andaman Sea, on a damaged boat. Mohd Zubil had said at the time that dozens of people on the boat were believed to have died during a voyage that lasted four months.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said last month Malaysia was unable to take in any more Rohingya, citing a struggling economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, there were about 177,940 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia at the end of June.
Most are from Myanmar, including 101,320 Rohingya. As Malaysia does not recognise the refugee convention, the government considers refugees “illegal migrants”, and they have no rights to work or send their children to school.