Malaysia is considering a plan to send nearly 300 Rohingya Muslim refugees detained after arriving on a damaged boat back out to sea once the ship has been fixed, two security sources told Reuters on Thursday.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has been a favoured destination for ethnic Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar and more recently, refugee camps in Bangladesh, in search of better prospects.
But Malaysia has said it will no longer accept Rohingya refugees after tightening border controls to rein in the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Malaysia had earlier asked Bangladesh to take back 269 Rohingya refugees, who were detained upon their arrival on June 8, but Bangladeshi officials had rejected the request.
Authorities have now drawn up a plan to send the detainees back out to sea after the boat has been fixed, two Malaysian security sources said. They declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
"That is the current plan but no decision has been made yet," one of the sources said.
The boat would be supplied with food and water if the plan to push them out to sea was approved, the source said.
The Malaysian government's National Taskforce on migrant issues, which includes the maritime agency, navy, police and immigration, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Nor did Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's office.
The body of one Rohingya woman was found on the boat but rights groups say more had died while others were left starving after being stranded at sea for months before being rescued.
The Arakan Project, a non-profit group focusing on the Rohingya crisis, urged Malaysia not to send the refugees back out to sea.
"This would amount to refoulement and would be completely inhumane as passengers already died aboard this boat before it was rescued," Chris Lewa, the group's director told Reuters.
Refoulement means the forced return of refugees to a place where they risk persecution in contravention of international humanitarian and human rights laws.
"Rohingya need protection and cannot be pushed off from one country to another, let alone back to sea."
In recent weeks, Malaysia has turned away at least two boats and detained hundreds of Rohingya already in the country, as well as other undocumented migrants.
The action comes amid heightened public anger towards foreigners in Malaysia, who have been accused of spreading the coronavirus and being a burden on state resources.
At least one boat with as many as 300 Rohingya refugees on board remains at sea, according to rights groups. Some of those on board are believed to be sick.
Its location is not known.