Twenty-six Rohingya migrants feared to have drowned off Malaysia after a treacherous boat crossing have been found alive, hiding in bushes on an island, an official said Monday.
A search was launched at the weekend for the Muslim refugees from mostly Buddhist Myanmar after a migrant travelling on the same vessel made it to the island and raised the alarm.
He initially said the boat had overturned — but later admitted that was not true, and the rest of the group were found late Sunday, coastguard chief Mohamad Zubil Mat Som told AFP.
All the migrants, who arrived on a small island off the northwest resort island of Langkawi, had been detained and would undergo coronavirus tests before being handed to immigration authorities, he said.
Rohingya escaping persecution in their homeland frequently make sea crossings to Malaysia, but authorities have been seeking to block them from landing in recent months over virus fears.
Mohamad Zubil said it was believed that people-smugglers had transferred the Rohingya from a large boat to smaller fishing vessels before ferrying them ashore.
“We have identified the human smugglers, who include a Rohingya man. We will arrest them soon,” he said.
Many of the Rohingya who head to Malaysia depart from Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands are languishing in refugee camps after fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar three years ago.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for the minority, with many working in low-paid jobs ranging from construction to agriculture.
But authorities have been seeking to block boats from arriving since the start of the pandemic, although some have made it ashore.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had said that the Southeast Asian country can no longer take more Rohingya migrants as the economy struggles to recover following a strict lockdown.