Malaysia: Authorities must not put rescued Rohingya refugees at risk of COVID-19

Responding to news of a Rohingya boat intercepted off the coast of Langkawi and the subsequent detention of the 269 refugees on board, Preethi Bhardwaj, Interim Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said: 

“Allowing the Rohingya to disembark was a humane step in upholding their human rights. Boats carrying people in distress must always be allowed to land safely. They must not be pushed away, threatened or intimidated. 

“It is terrible that a woman’s body was found on board – it’s clear this boat was adrift and failing to find a safe shore until then. For one person, this rescue came too late.

“Authorities must also respect the refugees’ right to health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Malaysian government has been detaining migrants and refugees in immigration detention centres that have seen outbreaks of COVID-19. We are concerned that this latest group of refugees will also be moved to these centres, placing them at a high risk of contracting the virus and keeping the pandemic alive.

“We urge the authorities to provide refugees with their immediate humanitarian needs such as food, water, shelter and healthcare. They must also ensure that adequate preventative measures against COVID-19 are in place while in quarantine and afterwards.

“Refugees should not be criminalized, detained or otherwise punished solely for their method of arrival in the country. Malaysian authorities should release refugees and migrants from detention centres so as to curb the spread of COVID-19, and ensure their needs are adequately met.”


On 8 June, a task force comprising the Armed Forces, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and the police intercepted a boat along the coast of Langkawi. Based on humanitarian grounds, the National Security Council allowed the boat to dock at the Teluk Ewa Jetty. All 269 refugees on board were subsequently detained at the Kem Bina Negara Wawasan in Langkawi. Authorities said that the body of a deceased woman was found on board.

In May, the government conducted at least three large-scale raids against undocumented migrants and refugees, rounding up hundreds of individuals including young children in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Selayang and PJ Old Town.

On 4 June Health Ministry director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced that 270 new cases of COVID-19 were detected at the Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot, making it the largest daily spike since the beginning of the pandemic. This followed a trend of COVID-19 clusters emerging from other detention centres in Putrajaya, Semenyih, and Sepang.