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Malaysia Says It Will Turn Back Migrant Boats

A regional crackdown on human trafficking in Southeast Asia could have an impact on thousands of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya, the ethnic group that has been the target of discrimination in Myanmar.

Malaysia said Tuesday it would turn back any further boatloads of migrants who seek refuge in the country. The decision comes a day after more than 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis landed in the waters of Malaysia's Langkawi island, and after Indonesia said it would also turn back the migrants.

The Associated Press reports:

"Southeast Asia is in the grips of a spiraling humanitarian crisis as boats packed with Rohingya and Bangladeshis are being washed ashore, some after being stranded at sea for more than two months. A regional crackdown on human traffickers has essentially spooked agents and brokers, who have refused to take people to shore.

"It reached a tipping point this weekend, when some captains and smugglers abandoned their ships, leaving migrants to fend for themselves with little food or drinking water.

"In the last three days, the 1,158 people landed on Langkawi island, according to Malaysian authorities, and 600 others in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh. With thousands more believed to be trapped in vessels at sea, that number is expected to climb, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division."

The Rohingya, as we have previously reported, are an effectively stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar and are among the most persecuted people in the world. About 1.3 million Rohingya live in the mostly Buddhist country of about 50 million. Many live in camps and villages and are deprived of basic rights. Human rights groups say they are targeted for ethnic cleansing. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reported last year, the issue is "extremely complex." He says:

"[I]it is often overlooked that it is just the latest chapter in the story of two minority ethnic groups — the Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine minority that have coexisted in the area for centuries. The U.N. says the Rakhine people have legitimate grievances that also must be addressed.

"The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis. It considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not citizens of Myanmar. In a recent nationwide census — the first in 30 years — people who identified themselves as Rohingya were simply not counted.

"Rohingya are discriminated against because of their religion and their race. Other groups often refer to them as kalar, a racial slur aimed at people of darker skin color."

The vessels that landed Sunday in the waters around Malaysia's Langkawi island carried 1,158 people; 486 were Myanmar citizens and 672 were Bangladeshis. There were 993 men, 104 women and 61 children. The numbers came from Malaysia's Home Ministry and were reported by the AP.

Malaysian officials say the vessels would be rescued if they sink. If the boats are seaworthy, one official said, they will be given provisions and asked to leave.

The AP adds: "For now, survivors on the island were being held in two separate holding centers, women and children in the sports hall for the Home Ministry and the men in another facility. But they would soon be transferred to a detention center on the Malaysian mainland."

The Home Ministry said it would discuss the issue with officials from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.