24 October 2016
Malaysian police distribute bread to refugees who arrived on Langkawi Island Monday. Photo: Reuters
Malaysian police distribute bread to refugees who arrived on Langkawi Island Monday. Photo: Reuters

1,000 refugees land on Malaysian resort island

More than 1,000 refugees, including many women and children, made landfall in Malaysia in what appears to be a sign of an accelerated exodus from western Myanmar and Bangladesh, The New York Times reported.

The landing of 1,051 boatpeople Monday near a hotel beach on the resort island of Langkawi followed the arrival Sunday of 582 on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Malaysian and Indonesian authorities say the refugees are a mix of Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya, a persecuted and stateless Muslim ethnic minority that inhabits western Myanmar and eastern Bangladesh.

The group that went ashore on Langkawi were in “very bad” shape, the report quoted Harrith Kam Abdullah, the island’s senior police officer, as saying.

He said the group, which included 101 women and 52 children, would be sent to the Malaysian mainland.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report Friday that an estimated 25,000 people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat in the first quarter of this year, twice last year’s number.

About one million Rohingya live in Myanmar.

The government rejects them as citizens, restricts their travel within the country and refuses to call them Rohingya, preferring the term Bengali, which implies that they belong across the border in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh also rejects the Rohingya as citizens and has its own refugee camps, both official and unofficial, filled with more than 200,000 of them.

Attacks on Rohingya villages in 2012 and 2013 by Buddhist mobs in Myanmar forced more than 100,000 Rohingya into refugee camps, where most remain.

The violence has abated, but anti-Muslim sentiment remains potent in Myanmar and is linked to a large political movement known as 969 that portrays Muslims as a threat to Buddhism.

The Rohingya pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia, which in recent years has turned a blind eye to their clandestine immigration.

“This is a ruthless business where smugglers will let them die to set an example for others,” the newspaper quoted Jeffrey Labovitz, the head of the Thailand operations of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that is helping the refugees, as saying.

“They are subject to extortion, to rape, sometimes to murder.”

The smuggling and trafficking was long aided by weak law enforcement in Thailand, a major transit point in Southeast Asia for the Rohingya and other migrants.

But Thailand has responded to pressure from Europe and the United States by cracking down on officials suspected of complicity in the human-smuggling business and by raiding remote jungle camps where Rohingya were kept in bamboo cages while their families were extorted for money, Thai officials say.

Thai authorities have unearthed graves containing more than 32 bodies presumed to be those of migrants who died in captivity or during the journey.

The Thai crackdown has pushed the trafficking away from Thailand, Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, a human rights group that tracks migration and human trafficking in the Andaman Sea, was quoted as saying.

Lewa said an estimate she made a week ago that 8,000 migrants were still at sea was likely too low.

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