Updated at 7:23 p.m. ET on 2020-04-16
Hundreds of “starving” Rohingya men, women and children were brought ashore in Bangladesh after a nearly two-month failed journey to Malaysia during which dozens died and were thrown overboard, officials and survivors said Thursday.
The Bangladesh Coast Guard said it had rescued 396 Rohingya refugees off a boat near Teknaf, a sub-district of southeastern Cox’s Bazar, late Wednesday.
“With the support of the Border Guard Bangladesh, we rescued the fishing trawler, which was carrying the Rohingya from the Baharchora Jahajpur area of Teknaf, at 9 p.m. Wednesday,” said Lt. Cmdr. M. Sohel Rana, a coast guard official stationed in Teknaf.
“They were starving. They were floating for 58 days and over the last seven days [the boat] was moving in our territorial waters,” he told BenarNews.
Sixty-four children, 182 women and 150 men were rescued, he said.
A BenarNews reporter spoke to Rohingya survivors from the boat.
“Somehow I survived without having adequate food in the last two months and landed in Bangladesh,” one of the survivors, who identified himself only as “Majed” and as a refugee from a camp in Teknaf, told BenarNews.
“Rokeya,” a woman who was rescued with the other Rohingya, said the trawler reached Malaysia at the end of the first week but was not allowed to go ashore, adding that a second attempt failed as well. In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Malaysia has closed its borders and ports and barred entry to foreigners.
The Rohingya were able to collect some food as their boat sailed near Thailand but that supply ran low as well, Rokeya said.
“We were given food and water once in a day only. We had to suffer a lot and many died and got sick,” she told BenarNews, adding that the Namaz-e-Janaza [Muslim funeral prayer] was said before bodies of the dead were thrown into the sea.
M. Sadeque, a refugee from the Balukhali Rohingya camp who also survived the sea journey, said that as many as 12 women and 25 men had died during the trip.
“The Myanmar Navy detained the trawler on its return from Malaysia, but released it in exchange for money and the crew then fled on another trawler,” he told BenarNews. “Finally, our trawler anchored near Teknaf point.”
The rescued Rohingya were taken to a transit point at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, where they were fed, said Sohel Rana of the Bangladesh Coast Guard said. Those who were sick received treatment before being turned over to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, at noon on Thursday.
UNHCR spokeswoman Louise Donovan said her agency was working with the Bangladesh government to take care of the Rohingya.
“We understand these men, women and children were at sea for nearly two months in harrowing conditions and that many of them are extremely malnourished and dehydrated. We dispatched staff to the site this morning and are seeking further information from local authorities,” Donovan told BenarNews.
“Our primary concern is for people’s immediate health and first aid needs,” she said. “Standardized procedures are in place to assist new arrivals, including full medical screening and a 14-day quarantine period at a designated quarantine center.”
A Bangladesh Coast Guard member lines up rescued Rohingya outside the Bangladesh-Myanmar transit center at Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar, April 16, 2020. [Abdur Rahman/BenarNews]
Malaysia stops another trawler
In Malaysia, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), the country’s coast guard, said authorities had not seen the boat in question.
However, the agency was enforcing orders not to allow the entry of any boats carrying foreign nationals, in order to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Capt. Zulinda Ramly, an MMEA North Region commander, told BenarNews late Thursday.
“Due to the Movement Control Orders of COVID-19 pandemic, MMEA is working together with the Royal Malaysian Navy and Royal Malaysian Air Force to strengthen Malaysia’s maritime borders to deny any illegal entries into Malaysian waters,” she said via Facebook Messenger.
Meanwhile, the Royal Malaysian Air Force announced that it had stopped an attempt by another trawler carrying Rohingya to enter the country.
“Due to their poor living conditions back home, the authorities feared that the refugees who try to enter Malaysia either by land or by sea will bring the new COVID-19 cluster into the country,” the air force said in a Facebook post Thursday.
Air force spotters notified the navy, which deployed two ships to escort the trawler carrying about 200 men, women and children from Malaysian waters. One of the navy ships delivered food to the trawler on “a humanitarian basis.”
On March 31, the MMEA intercepted a boat carrying nearly five dozen Rohingya off the island of Langkawi, near the country’s northwestern coast.
Officials at that time said the Rohingya were to be handed over to the state immigration department because they were found within Malaysian waters and without valid documents. MMEA officials were trying to show leniency to the Rohingya on the principle of humanity, according to North Regional Director Adm. Rozali Mohammed Said.
Capt. Zulinda did not immediately respond to a question from BenarNews about why the people on the boat were allowed to land in the Langkawi area on March 31, if the MMEA was under orders related to COVID-19 to block the entry of boats transporting foreigners.
Rights groups speak out
Amnesty International and Save the Children issued statements expressing support for the rescued Rohingya and concern about their possible exposure to the coronavirus.
“It is a relief to see that these nearly 400 Rohingya refugees have been welcomed by Bangladesh. Given the ordeal they have passed through, adrift on the sea for two months, they need to be provided with immediate medical attention and adequate food and shelter,” said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty’s South Asia director.
“Having first fled crimes against humanity in Myanmar and then being turned away by Malaysia, they have nowhere left to go – a fact that is harrowingly demonstrated by the callous indifference of other governments that refuse to give them sanctuary and the reported deaths at sea of 32 of their fellow passengers.”
News wire service Agence France-Presse reported that the death toll could be nearly twice AI’s claim.
“Rohingya refugees have suffered far too much already. The last thing they need is for the virus to sweep through the flimsy and tightly squeezed camps with inadequate health facilities to support them,” Patnaik said.
Save the Children Rohingya offered similar concerns, specifically for the 64 children rescued from the trawler.
“Rohingya children are some of the most marginalized on the planet,” said, Athena Rayburn, advocacy manager for the children’s rights NGO.
“While safe from the brutal violence that forced them to leave Myanmar, the camps in Bangladesh are no place for a child. Access to education and other essential services is limited, and children are at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse,” she said, adding that the camps were now facing the prospect of a COVID-19 outbreak “with potentially devastating consequences.”
About 740,000 Rohingya fled to camps in and around Cox’s Bazar from Myanmar’s Rakhine state beginning in August 2017, after its military launched a brutal offensive in response to deadly attacks by a rebel group on government security posts.
They joined thousands of other Rohingya who had previously fled Myanmar, bringing the number of refugees in the camps to more than 1 million.
Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.