Home minister: Malaysia sent Rohingya boat away with food as borders closed due to Covid-19

A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi April 5, 2020. — Reuters pic
A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi April 5, 2020. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 30 — Malaysian authorities turned away a boat with ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar only after providing them with food to continue their journey elsewhere, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin said today.

Hamzah was referring to a recent news report of the Royal Malaysian Navy intercepting a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya that was spotted 70 nautical miles away from Langkawi, with the crew of a navy ship providing food to them on humanitarian grounds before ensuring the boat left the country’s waters.

“Referring to the action of Malaysian authorities disallowing a boat carrying ethnic Rohingya from entering the country’s waters on April 17, the Home Ministry stresses that that measure is in line with the law to prevent the sovereignty of the country’s borders from being intruded.

“However, on a humanitarian basis, Malaysian authorities had distributed food supplies before escorting that boat out from the country’s waters,” he said in a statement today.

Hamzah also highlighted that Malaysia had closed its borders to all foreigners to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.

“The action of tightening borders including illegal entryways to block the intrusion of illegal immigrants is in line with the government’s measure to close the country’s entry points to foreigners to break the chain of transmission of the Covid-19 disease.

“The Home Ministry wishes to stress that the authorities remain ready to block any intrusion to the country’s borders and waters,” he said.

In the same statement, Hamzah also said the Malaysian government does not officially recognise refugees including those from the Rohingya community.

He said the non-recognition also encompassed those holding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card that the global agency issues to those refugees, saying they remained illegal immigrants in the eyes of Malaysian law.

Hamzah said Malaysia only allowed such “illegal immigrants” with UNHCR cards to stay in the country temporarily until UNHCR finds a third country to accept them.

Saying there are currently 101,584 Rohingya in Malaysia with the UNHCR card, Hamzah said they have no right to make demands of the Malaysian government and reminded the “illegal immigrants with UNHCR cards” to respect and obey the country’s laws.

The Malaysian authorities’ move to turn away the boat of 200 persons from the Rohingya community has been criticised by several groups, including the Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson who said the Covid-19 pandemic does not justify risking the lives of refugees on overcrowded boats and pushing them back to sea.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) highlighted that the Rohingya community still faced persecution, discrimination and violence in their home country, criticising the act of pushing refugees back to sea as being in violation of international human rights law and conflicting with Malaysia’s past generosity to the Rohingya community.

Stressing that Covid-19 pandemic risks can be managed without pushing refugees back to sea, LFL pointed out that Malaysia had previously taken a humane approach that still managed to protect the health of both the local and Rohingya community by isolating 250 Rohingya refugees who landed at Langkawi on April 5 to test them for Covid-19.

Others such as the National Human Rights Society(Hakam) and European Rohingya Council ambassador to Malaysia’s Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi had also weighed in on the issue.

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