Malaysian authorities have arrested two men for suspected trafficking of illegal migrants into the country, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA)said on Tuesday.
The suspects, believed to be ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, were arrested following investigations into the arrival of a boat carrying 202 suspected Rohingya refugees to Malaysia earlier this month.
A 36-year-old man was arrested at a house in Malaysia’s northern Kedah state on April 17 while a second man, aged 31, was detained two days later, the MMEA’s state deputy director of operations Zulinda Ramly said.
“Both suspects are believed to have acted as masterminds and land agents who handled the entry and exit of illegal migrants,” she said, adding that a third suspect was still at large.
Malaysia, which does not recognise refugee status, is a favoured destination for ethnic Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar and squalid conditions at refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Lured by traffickers, hundreds attempt the perilous voyage to Malaysia on overcrowded, rickety vessels each year.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya as citizens and they face severe curbs on freedom of movement as well as access to healthcare and education.
Myanmar denies persecuting Rohingya and says they are not an indigenous ethnic group but immigrants from South Asia.
More than a million live in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, the majority having been driven from homes in Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown the army said was a response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
Rights groups fear coronavirus lockdowns across Southeast Asia could trigger a repeat of a 2015 crisis when a crackdown by Thailand prompted smugglers to abandon their human cargo at sea.
At least 32 ethnic Rohingya died and hundreds were left starving on a ship that drifted for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, Bangladesh officials said last week.
In a separate case, Malaysia turned away another boat carrying 200 suspected Rohingya on Thursday after providing them with food supplies. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)