The government of Malaysia should urgently coordinate regional governments to deploy search and rescue missions for boats of Rohingya refugees adrift at sea and ensure their safe disembarkation, said Fortify Rights on Friday.
On April 16, members of the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 396 Rohingya from a boat that departed Bangladesh for Malaysia about two months back.
Malaysian authorities reportedly forced the boat back out to sea and the refugees were subsequently adrift for weeks and up to 60 died, said the Fortify Rights.
Rohingyas told Fortify Rights that at least two other ships remain adrift at sea between Bangladesh and Malaysia.
"Sending an ill-equipped ship of refugees out to sea is unlawful and a death sentence," said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Fortify Rights.
On April 16, Malaysian authorities located another boat of more than 200 Rohingya and forced it back to sea around 10:30 a.m.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) in a statement said the RMAF and Royal Malaysian Navy "prevented [the boat] from entering the country's territorial waters" and that "such aerial maritime surveillance operations will be intensified."
In 2015, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia pushed boats of thousands of Rohingya refugees out to sea, causing untold death. Malaysia and Thailand have long implemented a so-called "help-on" policy, pushing ill-equipped boats of refugees and possible survivors of human trafficking back out to sea.
"Pushback" and "help-on" actions and policies violate the principal of non-refoulement, which prohibits the "rejection at the frontier, interception and indirect refoulement" of individuals at risk of persecution.
Although Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are not signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the principle of non-refoulement is part of customary international law and is therefore binding on all states.
Under this principle, all countries in Southeast Asia are obligated to protect Rohingyas from being returned, including through returns that are informal such as pushbacks out to sea.
In March 2019, the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and Fortify Rights published a 121-page report, "Sold Like Fish," based on a multi-year investigation into mass graves and human trafficking of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia from 2012 to 2015.
As of February 2020, more than 178,900 refugees in Malaysia are registered with the U.N. refugee agency.
The total number of refugees in the country is likely much higher. Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar comprise more than half of all of Malaysia's refugee population.
On April 5, Malaysian authorities intercepted a boat carrying 202 Rohingya, including 45 women and five children, off the northwestern coast of Langkawi island in Malaysia's Kedah State.
On April 10, Fortify Rights called on the Government of Malaysia to release detained refugees and prevent the arbitrary detention of new arrivals to minimize health risks due to COVID-19.
Rohingya continue to face genocide and other international crimes in Myanmar, and migration routes available to them remain deadly.
There are more than a million Rohingya refugees in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar district, Bangladesh.
In February 2020, at least 15 Rohingyas from refugee camps in Bangladesh reportedly drowned in the Bay of Bengal after their boat, carrying more than 100, capsized en route to Malaysia.
"ASEAN needs to learn from its mistakes and not subject Rohingya to deaths at sea," said Matthew Smith. "Regional governments, including Bangladesh and Malaysia, should do all in their power to ensure an urgent, humane, and rights-respecting response to refugees arriving by sea."
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on Thursday night said around 30 Rohingya people may have passed away at sea as the boat ran out of food, water and fuel during a nearly two-month long journey at sea.
At the request of the government of Bangladesh, the UNHCR and partners in Bangladesh are currently providing shelter and assistance for close to 400 Rohingya survivors who disembarked from a boat in the Bay of Bengal on Thursday morning.
The survivors include a large number of women and children.
They are all in weak physical condition - many are dehydrated and malnourished and in need of immediate medical attention.
The group has been moved to designated medical facilities in Nayapara and Ukhiya where they are receiving medical attention and other assistance.
In line with established procedures and in adherence with government directives for all individuals entering Bangladesh, they will all receive a full medical screening and will be monitored and quarantined for the next two weeks.
Despite some media reports claiming that the group may be infected with COVID-19, there is currently no evidence to substantiate these reports, UNHCR said in a statement issued from Geneva.
Controlled, managed and predictable procedures for new arrivals ensures that any risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus is mitigated and that communities are protected, including the Rohingya refugees from the boat who remain in an extremely vulnerable condition, said the UN agency.