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More vessels bearing hungry migrants are headed toward Malaysia, which has beefed up sea and air patrols off its northeastern coast to prevent them landing, a top coastguard official said on Thursday.
Malaysian First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee told AFP: “Vessels ferrying illegals are waiting for an opportunity to come into Malaysia, especially from a neighbouring country.”
Tan, who is directing operations around the resort island of Langkawi where more than 1,100 migrants swam ashore this week, did not specify which country he was referring to, nor provide details on the incoming boats.
Migrant-rights advocates warn thousands more men, women and children are believed stuck out at sea or abandoned by smugglers since a Thai police crackdown disrupted people-smuggling routes.
Some 2,000 boat people from Burma and Bangladesh have been rescued or have swam to shore in Malaysia and Indonesia since the weekend.
Malaysia and Indonesia have said they will turn back boats — after supplying them with provisions — drawing warnings from migrant groups that the tough policy could fuel a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Indonesia said it turned away a boat this week carrying hundreds of people, and activists say Thailand also typically prevents them landing.
Tan declined to confirm whether Malaysia had yet intercepted any vessels.
But he said Malaysia had doubled its assets at sea around Langkawi, the northern island of Penang, and the northeastern coast near Thailand.
It also was conducting air patrols, he said.
“We have doubled up our assets and manpower to prevent any illegal intrusion. We are on alert,” he said.
The migrant crisis is fuelling calls for a coordinated Southeast Asian response to save lives.
Many migrants are Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group denied citizenship by Buddhist-majority Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and who flee by the thousands each year to escape discrimination and sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, Malaysian police on Thursday denied reports of a boat carrying hundreds of Rohingyas from Burma and Bangladeshis said to have been turned away from its coast, DPA has reported.
“There is no truth to reports that another boat full of suspected illegal migrants was seen off our shores,” a senior police official told DPA on condition of anonymity.
Media reports earlier said a boat with more than 500 migrants had been turned away by Malaysian authorities off the coast of northern Penang state late Wednesday.