A boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya tried to land in Malaysia this week but turned back after spotting patrol vessels seeking to stop the entry of migrants over coronavirus fears, an official said Thursday.
The boat is believed to have been at sea for three to four months and tried several times to enter the country's waters on Monday before giving up, Malaysian coastguard chief Zubil Mat Som told AFP.
The country has long been a favored destination for the persecuted Muslim minority from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, with thousands undertaking perilous sea crossings each year.
They usually travel from Myanmar or Bangladesh, where many live in squalid refugee camps, but Malaysia has strengthened maritime patrols in recent months over fears the refugees could be carrying the virus.
Up to 300 Rohingya were on board the latest vessel, Zubil said.
"The presence of navy ships, coastguard vessels and police boats at sea discouraged the migrant boat from entering our waters," Zubil said, adding the vessel was last spotted in Thai waters not far from Malaysia.
They were originally part of another group of 269 Rohingya that was allowed to land in northwest Malaysia on Monday after officials discovered their boat was too badly damaged to be turned back.
Rights groups say the migrants set off from Bangladesh in one vessel but were later separated into two.
Malaysia has vowed to send the latest arrivals back to Bangladesh.
Zubil said people-smugglers have now resorted to trying to bring Rohingya into the country using speed boats, which are harder to detect than the rickety fishing trawlers they usually travel on.
"These syndicates are making offers to owners of speed boats to take the illegal migrants into the country," he said.
Countries across Southeast Asia have tightened border security to stop the entry of migrants over virus concerns.
Hundreds of Rohingya have in recent times been rescued off Bangladesh after being stranded for long periods on boats, with scores dying on one vessel after Malaysia and Thailand denied it entry.