Dozens of Rohingya, mostly women and children, were caught as they arrived by boat in Malaysia last month after fleeing a refugee camp in neighbouring Indonesia, police said Friday.
Almost 400 members of the persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar arrived by boat in Indonesia last year after perilous journeys, and just over 100 now remain at a camp there.
Many are believed to have enlisted traffickers to help them make the sea crossing, including women seeking to reunite with their husbands in the Southeast Asian country.
Relatively affluent, Muslim-majority Malaysia is the main destination for Rohingya fleeing misery in Bangladeshi refugee camps.
Police confirmed to AFP that a boat carrying 36 people — 31 Rohingya and five Indonesians — was intercepted as it landed on Malaysia’s west coast on January 6.
“They entered Malaysia by boat from Tanjung Balai (on Indonesia’s Sumatra island) and landed at a beach,” said Abdul Rahim Jaafar, the director of internal security at the Royal Malaysia Police.
The Rohingya migrants numbered 17 women, seven men, five boys and two girls.
They were detained and 21 have been charged for entering Malaysia without valid documents, Abdul Rahim said. A further two people have been charged under anti-trafficking laws.
News of the boat landing tallies with accounts from Rohingya at the camp in Indonesia, who told AFP this week that scores of women had been smuggled to Malaysia.
While some were caught, others are believed to have successfully entered the country and reunited with their spouses, according to Rohingya and human rights groups.
Almost one million Rohingya live in sprawling camps in Bangladesh, many of which were set up after a bloody crackdown by Myanmar’s military in 2017 drove them into the impoverished South Asian country.
Over the years, many have sought to flee by boat to Malaysia, enduring harrowing, months-long sea journeys punctuated by illness and beatings.
More than 100,000 Rohingya live on the margins of society in Malaysia, registered as refugees but not allowed to work, forcing them into illegal construction and other low-paid jobs.