Hundreds of refugees who survived the 2015 boat crisis in South East Asia have been locked up in poor conditions in Malaysia ever since, Amnesty International said, following a visit to the country to investigate the fate of people one year on.
After harrowing footage of desperate refugees and migrants stranded at sea was beamed around the world last May, Malaysia agreed to accept 1,100 people. Almost 400 of those were identified as Rohingya refugees – people fleeing persecution in Myanmar. One year on, the majority of the Rohingya remain in Malaysia’s Belantik detention centre.
“We went to Malaysia to investigate the fate of the boat crisis survivors and found that, for hundreds of them, the suffering and human rights abuse continue,” said Khairunissa Dhala, a refugee expert at Amnesty International.
“Women, men and children fled from persecution in Myanmar, only to undergo the horror of being abandoned at sea by the unscrupulous gangs who run the sea routes. Malaysia should have been their place of safety – but instead they have spent a year in detention, with no end in sight.”
In addition to Rohingya refugees, the boats that arrived in Malaysia were carrying some 700 people from Bangladesh, many likely to have been victims of human trafficking.
In a 2015 investigation into the boat crisis Amnesty International found that hundreds of Bangladeshi survivors who reached Indonesia had likely been trafficked.
Almost all of those from Bangladesh in both Indonesia and Malaysia have since been repatriated. However sources in Malaysia told Amnesty International that 65 people from Bangladesh remain in Malaysia, and are also detained at Belantik.
The criminal gangs responsible for the boat crisis have not been brought to justice. Most of the boats, crammed with men, women and children, were abandoned by their crews, apparently because they believed the South East Asian authorities were about to take action to combat people smuggling and trafficking.
“The Malaysian government must stop criminalising and punishing refugees and migrants – who are most likely victims of trafficking – and carry out independent and impartial investigations to hold perpetrators to account,” said Khairunissa Dhala.
Amnesty International is calling on the Malaysian authorities to immediately release the refugees and migrants, and work with international partners to ensure they are given the protection they are entitled to under international law.
The 2015 Andaman Sea ‘boat crisis’ claimed global attention when dozens of boats carrying thousands of desperate people were abandoned at sea and the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to allow them to disembark.
Malaysia and Indonesia eventually accepted a total of three boats carrying more than 2,900 refugees and migrants. They agreed to provide temporary shelter to the group for a one-year timeframe provided that they would be resettled or repatriated by the international community within that period. To date, approximately 50 Rohingya refugees from the group in Malaysia were put forward for resettlement to a third country.
Amnesty International will publish further details on the situation of survivors of the boat crisis and human trafficking in the coming months.