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A screenshot of an exhausted Rohingya refugee receiving aid from the Bangladeshi coast guard.  ©2020 Bangladeshi Coast Guard/Facebook

(Bangkok) – Malaysia’s government is risking lives by pushing back overloaded boats of Rohingya refugees, Human Rights Watch said today. The government can appropriately respond to the Covid-19 pandemic without blocking life-saving rescues of seaborne asylum seekers.

Malaysia has recently pushed back to sea at least two boats filled with Rohingya refugees. On April 16, 2020, the Malaysian navy intercepted a boat with approximately 200 Rohingya refugees off the coast of Malaysia and prevented the boat from entering Malaysian waters. The fate of that boat is unknown. The previous day, Bangladesh coast guard officials intercepted another boatload of refugees that, survivors said, had been turned away from Malaysian waters almost two months earlier. A total of 382 starving Rohingya refugees were taken off the boat and survivors reported that at least 30 people on board had died before the rescue.

“Malaysia’s claims to support the rights of the Rohingya mean shockingly little when they push desperate refugees back to sea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Covid-19 pandemic does not create a justification for risking the lives of refugees on overcrowded boats.”

The Malaysian military sought to justify its actions by claiming that those on the boat would bring Covid-19 into the country, and that it had provided food to those on the boat turned away on April 16. In response to the public health crisis, Malaysia has issued a movement control order that prohibits foreigners from entering the country, among other prohibitions.

Under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. Subjecting those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine may be reasonable. But the pandemic does not justify a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress, risking the right to life of those on board. Malaysia’s pushback policy also violates international obligations to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they would face a risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

Malaysia should put in place systems to ensure that its fundamental human rights obligations coexist alongside public health measures, Human Rights Watch said. People arriving by sea, whether quarantined or not, should be placed in facilities that can guarantee social distancing, appropriate health monitoring, and access to health care. Because of the high risk of transmission of the virus in detention facilities, the authorities should use alternatives to detention as much as possible.

The Rohingya risking their lives at sea are fleeing persecution and dangerous conditions, Human Rights Watch said. Over800,000 Rohingya Muslims are currently living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, the bulk of whom were driven out of Myanmar by a military campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that began in August 2017. As a result of that campaign, the Myanmar government and military now face accusations of genocide before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State in Myanmar are subject to government persecution and violence, confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, and cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has only intensified the misery of the Rohingya confined in Myanmar and in camps in Bangladesh,” Robertson said. “The Malaysian government can both protect against the spread of the virus and ensure that those risking their lives at sea are rescued and given a chance to seek asylum.”

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