PETALING JAYA: As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee their homeland in the face of a Myanmar military crackdown and with Thailand shutting its doors on these refugees, boatloads of the displaced are expected to come seeking refuge in Malaysian waters.
The Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said the country would not turn them away but would instead treat them as victims of a humanitarian crisis.
Its director-general Datuk Zulkifli Abu Bakar (pic) said Langkawi and Penang were the most likely targets of landings by the Rohingya although the agency had yet to receive any information about an impending influx.
He said the MMEA’s northern region assets were in place with personnel ready to intercept any attempt to cross into our waters.
Asked how the Rohingya would be treated, Zulkifli said they would be considered illegal immigrants but some flexibility would be given where necessary.
“It would not be right for us to simply force the boats to turn back.
“We will focus on a humanitarian approach and we may gather them all in one location if there is a need and we will give them temporary shelter, food and other necessities,” he said.
Zulkifli said MMEA put in place a “layered” monitoring in the waters off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, with Langkawi being the most likely landing target for the Rohingya.
In May 2015, 1,158 illegal immigrants, including Rohingya, were dumped by human traffickers on the shores of Langkawi.
“Some may opt to sail in Indonesian waters before encroaching into Malaysian seas further south of Langkawi, meaning they are likely to seek a landing at or near Penang, so we also have ships off Penang to monitor their movements,” he said.
Zulkifli said MMEA would work closely with the Immigration Department and other authorities on the matter, adding that any decision on the next step would be made by the Government.
“At the moment, we have not yet received any information that they are coming, but we are ready,” Zulkifli said yesterday.
He said it could be some time before any attempts were made by the Rohingya to travel to Malaysia by sea.
“The violence is still ongoing, and the priority for the victims right now is just to stay alive,” he said, adding that it took time to arrange and prepare for any sea crossing to Malaysia.
He said rough seas off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia which typically marks the arrival of the north-east monsoon normally starts in October.
“However, there have been years when we only see it happening in January. In short, sea conditions can be unpredictable,” Zulkifli said.
It is believed that there are currently some 106,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, of whom UNHCR said some 60,000 were registered with it.
In Kedah, there are about 5,000 Rohingya, mostly in Sungai Petani and about 1,000 in Langkawi, most of whom came to the country in 2015 and 2016. Many are believed to be working in farms.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Shahidan Kassim said the Rohingya fleeing the violence in their country may try to seek refuge in Malaysia after failing to get into Bangladesh.
Shahidan said any Rohingya seeking refuge who are intercepted in Malaysian waters would not be victimised.
“We will not opt for the approach adopted by some countries where they were not allowed to land and were chased away into international waters. For us, they have gone through enough torture and it is not right for us to join in and victimise them. They have nowhere else to go.
“Our ships and boats, too, are equipped with facilities to allow temporary shelter. Once they are brought to land, they will be under the purview of the Home Ministry and Immigration Department,” he said.
Kedah MMEA northern maritime regional director First Admiral Zulkarnain Mohd Omar said his team had orders to be on high alert.
Zulkarnain said they had not received specific or confirmed information about the refugees coming in but believed they would come soon.
The violence in Rakhine state erupted on Aug 25 when militants attacked police posts and an army base, provoking a major counter-offensive that reportedly killed around 400 people, mostly Rohingya.
The UN estimated that more than 38,000 people had sought refuge in Bangladesh due to the recent violence while another 20,000 were massed along its border, barred from entering the country.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in western Myanmar.
Sholto Byrnes, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said Malaysia had taken a prominent role in putting pressure onthe Myanmar government, with the Prime Minister speaking out about the plight of the Rohingya last December and then convening the Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to discuss the issue earlier this year.