KUALA LUMPUR, June 26 (Reuters): Malaysia can no longer take in Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Friday, citing a struggling economy and dwindling resources as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for Rohingya seeking a better life after fleeing a 2017 military-led crackdown in Myanmar and refugee camps in Bangladesh.
But Malaysia, which does not recognise refugee status, has recently turned away boats and detained hundreds of Rohingya, amid rising anger towards foreigners who have been accused of spreading the coronavirus and taking up scarce state funds.
"We can no longer take more as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic," Muhyiddin said in teleconference with other leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar.
"Yet, Malaysia is unfairly expected to do more to accommodate incoming refugees."
The treatment of Rohingya has been divisive for ASEAN, with its two Muslim-majority members - Malaysia and Indonesia - criticising Buddhist-majority Myanmar and expressing growing frustration with Rohingya arriving on boats operated by people smugglers.
Myanmar denies abuses against members of the minority in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, but says the Rohingya are not citizens but illegal immigrants from South Asia.
Rohingya have for years boarded boats between November and April, when the seas are calm, to get to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Muhyiddin urged the U.N. refugee agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries. The agency says there are more than 100,000 Rohingya in Malaysia though rights groups say the number is higher.
He also called for more efforts to combat the trafficking of Rohingya, who he said were increasingly at risk for exploitation, slavery and recruitment by militants.
"ASEAN must do more to help Myanmar, and Myanmar must also do more to help itself for this crisis to be put behind us," he said.
Dozens of Rohingya died and their bodies were thrown overboard from a boat that later landed on a Malaysian island this month with 269 people on board, authorities said.
On Thursday, nearly 100 Rohingya were rescued by fishermen from a boat adrift off Indonesia.