Malaysia intercepts boat carrying Rohingya refugees, more perilous sea journeys expected

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia intercepted a boat carrying 56 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar off its northern island of Langkawi on Tuesday and will allow them to enter on humanitarian grounds, with rights groups expecting further such perilous journeys by sea.

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The boat had stopped at an island in southern Thailand on Saturday after a storm, with officials there saying the refugees were heading to Malaysia. It had set sail from central Rakhine state in Myanmar, the U.N. refugee agency said.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said in a statement that the boat was carrying 19 men, 17 women and 20 children. It had since been escorted to the peninsula and its occupants handed over to immigration authorities for processing.

Malaysia’s standard policy has been to turn away refugee boats attempting to make landfall, unless weather conditions are bad, though thousands have managed to enter the country over the years.

“Generally all 56 passengers, mostly children and women, are safe but tired and hungry,” Malaysian navy chief Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin told Reuters.

“We have provided them with water, food and other humanitarian assistance.”

According to UN and other rights groups, some 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fled their homes in Rakhine into Bangladesh after militant attacks in August last year sparked a military crackdown that the United Nations and Western countries have said constitutes ethnic cleansing.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects that charge, saying its forces have been waging a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” who attacked government forces.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar by sea following an outbreak of sectarian violence in Rakhine in 2012, some falling prey to human traffickers. That exodus peaked in 2015, when an estimated 25,000 people fled across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, many drowning in unsafe and overloaded boats.

Due to the fresh outbreak of violence in Myanmar, rights groups expect another surge in Rohingya boats reaching Southeast Asia, during the months the seas are calmer, even if not at the levels of three years ago.

Boats can originate from Myanmar or from overcrowded Bangladesh camps, rights groups have said.

Muslim-majority Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. Refugee Convention and treats refugees as illegal migrants, is already home to more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees.

Editing by Nick Macfie