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Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees Stranded at Sea

Allow Ashore Hundreds at Risk of Starvation, Provide Health Care

Rohingya refugees gather after being rescued in Teknaf near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 16, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Bangladesh government should immediately allow hundreds of Rohingya refugees stranded in two trawlers in the Bay of Bengal to come ashore and receive necessary food, water, and health care, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, warned that the Rohingya may have been at sea for weeks without adequate food and water.

On April 23, 2020, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said the country would refuse entry to more Rohingya: “I am opposed to allowing these Rohingya into the country because Bangladesh is always asked to take care of the responsibility of other countries.” Bangladesh hosts nearly a million Rohingya refugees who fled mass atrocities in Myanmar. He added that because the Covid-19 pandemic had increased the number of Bangladeshis returning to the country, “we have no room to shelter any foreign people or refugees.”

“Bangladesh has shouldered a heavy burden as the result of the Myanmar military’s atrocity crimes, but this is no excuse to push boatloads of refugees out to sea to die,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh should continue to help those at grave risk and preserve the international goodwill it has gained in recent years for helping the Rohingya.”

Inhumane pushbacks of boats by countries in the region have placed refugees and asylum seekers’ lives at risk, Human Rights Watch said. Malaysia recently pushed back to sea one and possibly more fishing trawlers with hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers aboard, and Thailand has indicated that it will refuse entry to Rohingya boats.

On April 15, Bangladesh coast guard officials rescued one boat of Rohingya refugees which had reportedly been turned away by Malaysia nearly two months earlier. About 390 starving Rohingya, most under 20 years old, were brought ashore, with reports that as many as 100 may have died on board before the rescue.

“People’s legs swelled and got paralyzed,” a 14-year-old girl told Medicins San Frontieres (MSF). “Some died and were thrown into the sea. We were adrift at sea with people dying every day. We feel like we’ve been taken from hell.” An MSF medical team leader who cared for the survivors said: “They were just skin and bone – a lot of them were barely alive.”


A Bangladesh fisherman told Human Rights Watch that on April 20 he saw “two trawlers full of Rohingya coming toward the shore while I was at sea in my fishing trawler with others.” The same day, a local resident posted on Facebook: “Again, trawlers full of Rohingya are heading to Baharchara Union [in Cox’s Bazar]. They are waiting at sea to enter into Bangladesh.”

Some of the stranded Rohingya may be among those who have left the refugee camps in Bangladesh over the last four months in an attempt to reach Malaysia. Human Rights Watch spoke to ten families who said they had family members who had left the camps but have yet to return or send word that they had arrived. Some may have fallen prey to smugglers. A mother from Kutupalong extension camp told Human Rights Watch: “One of my sons left the camp some two months ago. Around 20 days back I got a phone call from my son to pay money to smugglers. We paid. But we have not heard anything since.”

On April 23, UNHCR raised serious concerns about the pushbacks, urging “greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by states to address the maritime movements of refugees and asylum-seekers in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.” It added: “We are increasingly concerned by reports of failure to disembark vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk this poses to the men, women and children on board. Search and rescue, along with prompt disembarkation, are life-saving acts.”

In February, the Task Force on Planning and Preparedness of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime made a commitment to saving lives when responding to “irregular maritime migration.” Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Bangladesh are all members.

Bangladesh should continue to uphold its international obligations not to return refugees to places where they face persecution, and not to return anyone to where they would face a risk of torture or other ill-treatment. All countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, have the responsibility under international law to respond to boats in distress, enact or coordinate rescue operations within their search and rescue operations, and not to push back asylum seekers risking their lives at sea, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international law, public health measures taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. It may be reasonable to subject those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine. But the pandemic cannot justify a blanket ban such as Bangladesh’s refusal to allow any Rohingya now or in the future to disembark. Forcing them to remain on the boat also risks their right to health.

The Myanmar government bears responsibility for creating the Rohingya refugee crisis. About 900,000 Rohingya are currently living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, most of whom fled Myanmar since August 2017 to escape the military’s crimes against humanity and possible genocide. 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 resources of the Bangladesh government are under great strain as the country grapples with the spread of Covid-19. Donors should help Bangladesh to set up quarantine centers and provide medical assistance and infrastructure support to help fight the spread of Covid-19 in the camps and neighboring communities, Human Rights Watch said.

“Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has called herself the ‘Mother of Humanity’ for offering protection to Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, but now her government is turning its back on these refugees,” Adams said. “Concerned governments should call on Bangladesh to bring these two Rohingya boatloads ashore and provide generous financial support for these and other refugees living in overcrowded camps.”

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