Malaysia said Tuesday it will send back hundreds of Rohingya who arrived by boat this week after months at sea, as fears mounted that the refugees could be carrying a new wave of coronavirus.
The country is a favoured destination for the persecuted Muslim minority from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, with thousands risking their lives on perilous sea crossings every year.
They usually travel from Myanmar or Bangladesh, where about one million live in squalid refugee camps after fleeing a 2017 military crackdown in their homeland.
But Malaysian authorities have stepped up maritime patrols in recent months in a bid to prevent them from landing over fears they could be carrying the coronavirus.
On Monday, however, coastguards allowed 269 Rohingya to come ashore after discovering them on a vessel that was too rickety to be pushed back to sea.
Rights groups say the migrants set off from Bangladesh in early April and had been turned away by several Southeast Asian countries.
Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob insisted Malaysia would not allow them to stay, and issued a warning to others thinking of making the journey.
"They should not think that when they come, we will accept them. We will send them back," he told a press conference.
He said that the foreign ministry would talk to Bangladeshi officials about sending the latest arrivals back, adding: "Maybe we will ask that they be housed at Bhashan (Char) island."
He was referring to a silty strip of land In Bangladesh prone to violent and potentially deadly monsoon storms and where hundreds of recently arrived Rohingya have been sent to.
Dhaka has said they were interned there because authorities were also wary of coronavirus.
The Arakan Project, which tracks Rohingya boats, said the latest arrivals are believed to be part of a group numbering several hundred more that set off from Bangladesh on 7 April.
It is thought they were transferred to two boats in May, which then attempted to reach several countries, said group official Chris Lewa, adding the second vessel is still believed to be at sea.
In April, Malaysia intercepted and turned back a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya, sparking calls from rights groups for the government to soften its stance. - AFP