Malaysian authorities have launched a search for 24 Rohingya refugees who went missing while trying to swim to shore from a boat off the resort island of Langkawi.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for Rohingya Muslims seeking a better life after escaping the 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar and, more recently, refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Malaysia’s coastguard said 25 people had tried to swim ashore late on Saturday when their boat was near the island’s west coast but only one reached land.

Described as the world’s most persecuted people, 1.1 million Rohingya people live in Myanmar. They live predominately in Rakhine state, where they have co-existed uneasily alongside Buddhists for decades.

Rohingya people say they are descendants of Muslims, perhaps Persian and Arab traders, who came to Myanmar generations ago. Unlike the Buddhist community, they speak a language similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are reviled by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants and suffer from systematic discrimination. The Myanmar government treats them as stateless people, denying them citizenship. Stringent restrictions have been placed on Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance, education and other basic services.

Violence broke out in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, when militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that  ultimately killed at least 1,000 people and forced more than 600,000 to flee their homes. The UN’s top human rights official said the military’s response was “clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks and warned that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority appears to be a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.

When Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power there were high hopes that the Nobel peace prize winner would help heal Myanmar’s entrenched ethnic divides. But she has been accused of standing by while violence is committed against the Rohingya.

In 2019, judges at the international criminal court authorised a full-scale investigation into the allegations of mass persecution and crimes against humanity. On 10 December 2019, the international court of justice in The Hague opened a case alleging genocide brought by the Gambia.

Rebecca Ratcliffe

Two boats and one aircraft were sent out on Sunday to search an area of more than 100 sq nautical miles, according to Mohd Zawawi Abdullah, the provincial director for the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

“We have relayed information to other rescue agencies and local fishing communities and will also inform the Thai authorities … to assist in the search,” Zawawi said in a statement.

Police detained the person who reached shore for questioning. They did not say what happened to the boat.

Last month, 269 Rohingya were detained on arrival in Langkawi.

At the time, the head of the MMEA said they were transferred from a larger “motherboat” on which dozens of people were believed to have died and been thrown into the sea over a four-month voyage.

Malaysia does not recognise refugee status. The prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, said last month the country could not accept any more Rohingya, citing a struggling economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

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