The United Nations agency for refugees has expressed alarm at reports suggesting that Malaysia turned back two boats with 800 “vulnerable” people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the action of turning away the boats would not stop people from seeking safety outside their country.
UNHCR representative in Malaysia, Richard Towle, said they were deeply concerned for the welfare of the people on board.
“Many of them may have been on these boats for many days with no food or water and may be in need of urgent medical attention. There may be women and children and others with special needs,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
Many of those on the boats were believed to be Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar was reported to have said that about 500 people who were found a boat on Wednesday off Penang were given provisions and sent on their way.
The Associated Press (AP) reported unnamed Malaysian officials as saying another boat carrying about 300 migrants was turned away near Langkawi overnight.
Several thousand others are believed to be stranded on smugglers’ boats in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, likely abandoned by their crews amid government crackdowns against traffickers.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said that all vessels ferrying illegal immigrants would be escorted out of Malaysian waters, amid reports that up to 8,000 Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar might be heading this way.
The UNHCR, however, has said that the first priority was to save lives and it was key for the countries in the region to share responsibility to disembark these people immediately.
There are 45,170 Rohingya refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as of February this year.
The Muslim minority from Myanmar are considered to be stateless and are often subjected to arbitrary violence and forced labour in their homeland.