KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has intercepted a boat carrying 56 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar off its northern island of Langkawi, authorities said on Tuesday, with rights groups expecting further perilous journeys by sea after last year's surge in violence in Myanmar.
The boat had stopped at an island in southern Thailand on Saturday after a storm, with officials there saying the refugees were heading to Malaysia. It had set sail from central Rakhine state in Myanmar, the U.N. refugee agency said.
"Generally all 56 passengers, mostly children and women, are safe but tired and hungry," Malaysian navy chief Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin told Reuters.
"We have provided them with water, food and other humanitarian assistance."
According to UN and other rights groups, some 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fled their homes in Rakhine into Bangladesh after militant attacks in August last year sparked a military crackdown that the United Nations and Western countries have said constitutes ethnic cleansing.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects that charge, saying its forces have been waging a legitimate campaign against "terrorists" who attacked government forces.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar by sea following an outbreak of sectarian violence in Rakhine in 2012, some falling prey to human traffickers. That exodus peaked in 2015, when an estimated 25,000 people fled across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, many drowning in unsafe and overloaded boats.
Due to the fresh outbreak of violence in Myanmar, rights groups expect another surge in Rohingya boats reaching Southeast Asia, during the months the seas are calmer, even if not at the levels of three years ago.
Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Director General Zulkifili Abu Bakar said the refugees would be allowed to enter the country on humanitarian grounds.
"They will be handed over to the Immigration Department," he told Reuters in a text message.
Muslim-majority Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. Refugee Convention and treats refugees as illegal migrants, is already home to more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees