Malaysia/Thailand: Launch urgent search and rescue missions for remaining Rohingya at sea

Responding to news that 26 Rohingya refugees previously feared drowned off the resort island of Langkawi, Malaysia, have been found alive on the island of Rebak Besar following a search yesterday, Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Malaysia Researcher said: 

“While this story has had a happy ending, such potential tragedies could be avoided if Malaysian and Thai authorities allowed Rohingya refugees to disembark from boats instead of callously pushing them back out to sea.  

“The situation of remaining Rohingya refugees still stranded at sea for months is desperate. ASEAN governments must immediately launch co-ordinated search and rescue missions for remaining survivors; allow all boats carrying refugees and migrants to land safely in the nearest country; and meet their humanitarian needs. Unless this happens, more lives will inevitably be lost.”  


On 26 July 2020, the Malaysian coastguard reported that 24 Rohingya were missing, after they had tried to swim to shore on Langkawi. Only one reportedly reached land. Later that evening, 26 Rohingya were found alive on an island off Langkawi, including men, women and children. As many as hundreds of other Rohingya may still be at sea on a larger “mother boat” in critical condition. Such boats have been pushed away by both Malaysian and Thai authorities.  

In recent months, hundreds of Rohingya refugees have been stranded at sea for weeks and months, and scores are believed to have died. Fleeing violence in Myanmar and poor conditions in Bangladesh refugee camps, many have made attempts to reach Southeast Asia, with boats often the only option. In most cases, Southeast Asian governments have blocked them from landing safely and seeking asylum, and failed to launch search and rescue operations, against their obligations under international law and regional commitments. 

In June, 269 Rohingya were detained on arrival in Langkawi after their boat broke down. At the time, the Malaysian Maritime Agency said they had been transferred from a larger “mother boat” on which dozens of people were believed to have died and been thrown into the sea during a journey lasting months.