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Malaysia to turn away boat migrants

Published 12/05/2015

Migrants wait at a temporary immigration detention centre in Langkawi, Malaysia. (AP)
Migrants wait at a temporary immigration detention centre in Langkawi, Malaysia. (AP)

Malaysia's navy says it will turn away any more boats carrying Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to its shores unless they are sinking.

Marine northern commander Tan Kok Kwee said waters around Langkawi island, where several wooden vessels have landed in the past three days, will be patrolled 24 hours a day by eight ships.

Mr Tan said: "We won't let any foreign boats come in."

If the boats are seaworthy the navy will "give them provisions and send them away".

He said the navy would carry out a rescue only if a boat was sinking.

Since the weekend, more than 1,000 migrants in boats have landed on Langkawi, and another 600 have come ashore on Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh.

Many more migrants from Burma and Bangladesh are believed to be trapped on packed boats at sea, some after being abandoned by smugglers, activists and officials said.

South-east Asia is the grip of a spiralling humanitarian crisis as boats packed with Rohingya and Bangladeshis are being washed ashore, some after being stranded at sea for more than two months.

A regional crackdown on human traffickers has essentially spooked agents and brokers, who have refused to take people to shore.

One boat sent out a distress signal today, with migrants saying they had been without food and water for three days, according to Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project, after speaking by phone to some of those on board.

"They asked to be urgently rescued," she said, adding there were an estimated 350 people on the ship, 50 of them women, and that they had no fuel.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the US, Australia and other governments and international organisations have held a string of emergency meetings to discuss possible next steps.

They are worried about deaths, but also the looming refugee problem. In the past, most nations have been unwilling to accept Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Burma who are effectively stateless. They worry that by opening their doors to a few, they will be unable to stem the flood of poor, uneducated migrants.

"In some ways it's important," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said of the unprecedented numbers.

"It sets up the possibility people will finally realise this is a regional issue," he said, "that countries are receiving Rohingya because of Burma's bad policies of discrimination and abuse against members of the religious minority and that they need to band together to demand the government change those policies."

Malaysia's Home Ministry said in a statement that the 1,158 Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants who landed on Sunday comprised 993 men, 104 women and 61 children.

For now, survivors on Langkawi island - known for its upscale hotels and white-sand beaches - are being held in two separate holding centres, women and children in the sports hall for the Home Ministry and the men in another facility. They will soon be transferred to a detention centre on the Malaysian mainland.

To prevent recurrences, the ministry said it would seek to meet officials from Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand to address the issue.

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