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Malaysia’s immigration department has said that it is investigating claims that the 93 Rohingya ‘boat people’ who were rescued last week in the country’s northern waters had been pushed out to sea by Thai navy.
The claims, reportedly made by the refugees, would mirror a similar incident in January last year which drew widespread condemnation of the Thai government’s policy towards refugees.
Malaysia state immigration chief Zulfikar Ahmad told AFP that the group, an ethnic Muslim minority that hail from western Burma, claimed that Thai navy personnel had given them food before setting them adrift.
The boat was eventually found by Malaysian maritime officials near to Langkawi island, close to the Thai-Malaysia border. They had been at sea for between 30 and 45 days.
While the refugees, who ranged from 16 to 50-years-old, were said to be in good health, it was reported that one man had died during the journey.
“The Rohingya said they met the Thai navy at sea, they gave them food and later pushed them out before they were rescued by our maritime officials,” Ahmad told AFP.
He added that the investigation would take two weeks while Malaysia probes Thai authorities over the claims.
In January last year photographs emerged of nearly 1,000 Rohingya who had washed up in boats on Thailand’s southeastern coast being towed back out to sea, where four of the boats sank.
Following this, and several other similar incidences, Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledged that there were “some instances” in which the Rohingya had been pushed back out to sea.
“There are attempts, I think, to let these people drift to other shores…when these practices do occur, it is done on the understanding that there is enough food and water supplied,” he said.
According to Human Rights Watch, between late 2008 and early 2009 around 6,000 Rohingya fled Burma and Bangladesh. Up to 400,000 Rohingya refugees are thought to live in Bangladesh, although only 28,000 are registered by the UN refugee agency.
The Burmese government refuses to grant Rohingya legal status in the country, citing their distinct ethnic grouping, while Bangladesh has blocked attempts by the UN refugee agency to grant refugee status to the estimated 378,000 who remain in the country illegally.