A boat of 56 Rohingya men, women and children from Myanmar’s central Rakhine state has arrived in Malaysian waters four days after it came ashore on the Thai island of Koh Lanta.
The group had taken shelter near the popular tourist island after a storm overnight on March 31. They were brought ashore and given food, water and supplies by community groups on the island before being shepherded on by Thai authorities once the boat had been patched up.
Thailand’s official policy is to push refugee boats onward.
Photos posted online depicted a rickety wooden vessel with limited space below deck. A source who encountered the group on a civilian boat on the Andaman Sea said they did not have GPS and appeared to be navigating with a compass. They had run out of food and water.
All they had been able to communicate due to the language barrier was that they were Rohingya.
Malaysia has stepped up maritime patrols in anticipation of the boat’s arrival. Late on Monday, the group was found exhausted near an island off Langkawi.
They have been taken into custody by police and navy and are being transferred to Belantik for processing at the immigration detention center, according to MAPIM, the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organization. Community groups are mobilizing funding to support the refugees.
It is not yet known precisely when the group left Rakhine state. Aid groups are on standby amid concerns there may be other planned departures.
Malaysia already plays host to over 100,000 Rohingya, the vast majority of whom are undocumented by refugee agencies. They often struggle to access basic public services.
Boat departures from Rakhine state and Bangladesh had tapered off in recent years, following a regional crackdown on trafficking rings. Thailand dismantled major operations that were taking people from the coast and overland to Malaysia.
Almost 100,000 fled on boats between 2014 and 2015, and it is estimated at least 1,000 died during treacherous journeys on rickety boats. The smuggling route for Rohingya refugees, as well as Bangladeshi economic migrants, had become a lucrative trade.
Extortion was rife, with many held in jungle camps until their relatives paid to have their family members released. It is unknown how many died in these places, from which tales of shocking brutality at the hands of traffickers emerged.
Many entered into complex debt arrangements with brokers. In Malaysia, stories abound of young women having been brought over and sold into marriage.
Previously, the business model involved people being ferried out to large carriers, where they were made to wait until the vessel was jam-packed.
While the international spotlight has shone on the mass human exodus from northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh, conditions that prevail inside other parts of Rakhine remain dire. The Muslim population is subject to movement restrictions, and in many areas tensions remain on-high with their Buddhist neighbors.
Over 100,000 remain in squalid internment camps, where their access to healthcare, education and work opportunities is severely curtailed. Travel outside of Rakhine is made near-impossible due to the Rohingya population’s lack of official documentation and the movement restrictions they face.
Short of paying extortionate sums for forged documents and bribes for safe passage, many feel they are left with few options but to take the perilous journey by sea. Myanmar authorities recently detained several groups who fled Rakhine overland by vehicle, possibly putting a stop to that minor route.
This all comes as Myanmar and Bangladesh have reached a tentative agreement on repatriation of refugees. However, analysts and rights groups agree this appears to be wildly premature.
For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), heading off another boat crisis has been a top priority. Calls for Myanmar to act in good faith and provide safe, dignified and voluntary returns have resounded from the bloc.
Whether the boat of Rohingya was a one-off, or the beginning of more dangerous last-ditch attempts to flee Rakhine and Bangladesh ahead of the relentless monsoon, is not yet clear.
Sources inside northern Rakhine state have indicated a concern that relatives in the surging camps of Cox’s Bazar plan to take to the sea in a bid to reach Malaysia before the monsoon closes in.
With certainties of landslides, water-borne disease, and outbreaks of illnesses such as cholera, conditions in the camps are set to deteriorate badly in the coming months. And as the arrivals of the 56 who have made safe passage to Malaysia attest, the level of desperation inside Rakhine itself also remains high.
Myanmar has long insisted that the problems plaguing Rakhine state are an internal matter. This runs contrary to the officially perpetuated narrative that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In sight of the biblical exodus from northern Rakhine following the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, and the massive boat exodus before it, it is clearly a regional issue that requires a collective regional response.