Bangladesh will not accept any more Rohingya refugees, the foreign minister said Wednesday, despite pleadings from international agencies who expressed concerns about the lives of hundreds of refugees stranded on at least two trawlers reportedly adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
The refugees on the wooden boats were aiming to reach Malaysia, but the Southeast Asian nation and neighboring countries had tightened borders to curtail the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We don’t have any information that more boats are floating within Bangladesh territory. We don’t even know that,” Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews on Wednesday. “But we won’t take any more Rohingyas. Let other countries take them.”
Momen was reacting to a joint statement released hours earlier by three United Nations agencies. They warned that the refusal of countries in the region to let the boats land could bring about a repeat of a mass migration by sea that took place in the region five years ago.
In May 2015, hundreds of people died during illicit sea voyages, and thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants came ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia after Thailand closed its borders to boats smuggling in people.
“We are deeply concerned by reports that boats full of vulnerable women, men and children are again adrift in the same waters, unable to come ashore, and without access to urgently needed food, water, and medical assistance,” the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the International Organization of Migration (IOM), and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in their statement.
“Deterring movements of people by endangering life is not only ineffective; it violates basic human rights, the law of the sea and the principles of customary international law by which all States are equally bound,” it said.
On Wednesday, Momen, the foreign minister, confirmed that the 29 Rohingya, including five children and 19 women, who had been taken to an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal, came from the two trawlers that were attempting to smuggle them in.
“Yes, the group of 29 Rohingyas are from two trawlers that had been prevented from entering Bangladesh’s water territory,” he told BenarNews on Wednesday. “Later, the trawlers moved to Myanmar side and from there they entered Bangladesh in small boats.”
“They most likely came from Myanmar. We can’t tell you exactly,” he said.
“There are mixed people – some may have gone from here, while some may have come from Myanmar,” he said. “But they are all Myanmar citizens. Rohingyas are not citizens of Bangladesh.”
The small group of refugees, who arrived in the southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar near the Myanmar border, arrived aboard a dinghy. While some of them had escaped, the Bangladeshi coast guard escorted the rest on Saturday night to Bhashan Char, a flood-prone island, located hours from the mainland. It was the first time that Rohingya refugees had been taken there.
Food, doctors and police officers had been sent to the island to take care of the refugees, reports said. Health authorities have not confirmed if any of those refugees were carrying the coronavirus, Momen said.
“They will be on quarantine at Bhashan Char,” the foreign minister said, referring to the Rohingya on the island. “If necessary, required testing will be done to check for the coronavirus. So far, there’s no information that anyone has tested positive.”
Asked if the transfer of the refugees during the weekend could signal that larger groups of Rohingya from the country’s makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar would eventually be taken to the island, Momen replied, “It doesn’t seem that it is part of a larger movement of Rohingyas to Bhashan Char.”
“But the government takes the opportunity to isolate this small group from vast [numbers of] Rohingyas in the camps,” he said. “The situation will indicate whether more Rohingyas will be shifted to Bhashan Char.”
Island vulnerable to cyclones, rights groups say
Human rights groups oppose Dhaka’s plan to relocate refugees there, as the island is vulnerable to cyclones, and aid officials say it would be costly to provide services there.
However, Bangladeshi officials had previously said that sending the refugees to Bhashan Char was necessary to reduce pressure on the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, where close to 1 million Rohingya are sheltering after fleeing cycles of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
In the biggest cross-border exodus to date along the Bangladesh-Myanmar frontier, about 740,000 Rohingya escaped from Rakhine, beginning in August 2017, after Naypyidaw’s military launched a brutal crackdown in response to deadly attacks by Rohingya insurgents on government security posts.
So far, no Rohingya has tested positive in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, according to health authorities.
On Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Bangladesh should not quarantine refugees at Bhashan Char “until they coordinate with the U.N. and other agencies to ensure that proper medical and food assistance are provided.”
“Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of COVID-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement
“Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland.”
As of Wednesday, Bangladeshi health authorities have confirmed 11,719 coronavirus infections, with 186 deaths.