KUALA LUMPUR • Twenty-six Rohingya refugees feared to have drowned while trying to swim to the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi have been found hiding in the bushes on a nearby islet, according to a senior coastguard official yesterday.
Malaysia does not recognise refugee status, but the Muslim-majority country is a favoured destination for Rohingya Muslims seeking a better life after escaping a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar and, more recently, refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Late last Saturday, one Rohingya swam ashore from a small boat off Langkawi’s west coast. Officials feared that the rest of the group had drowned while trying to reach the beach, but they were later discovered on an islet just off the coast.
“They were found hiding in the bushes on the island,” Mr Mohd Zubil Mat Som, director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), said in a text message.
The authorities have detained the refugees. Two more Rohingya migrants have also been arrested for suspected trafficking in connection with the people found.
The refugees were believed to have transferred to a small boat to sneak into Malaysia, having travelled on a “mother boat” carrying hundreds of Rohingya from Bangladesh, the coastguard official said.
MMEA’s provincial director Mohd Zawawi Abdullah said the refugees were smuggled in on local fishing boats that acted as “transporters” to take them to Langkawi.
“Our investigations found that this syndicate transfers migrants from mother boats near the maritime border to local fishing boats to evade local authorities,” he said.
Last month, Malaysia detained 269 Rohingya who arrived in Langkawi on a damaged boat.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said last month that Malaysia was unable to take in any more Rohingya, citing a struggling economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.