Around 280 starving Rohingya stranded on a cramped boat in the Bay of Bengal for weeks have been spotted by the Bangladesh Navy and are being taken to a controversial flood-prone island, officials said Thursday.
The boat, one of two trawlers trying to reach Malaysia, was discovered after the navy increased patrols following reports of hundreds of Rohingya adrift at sea.
Authorities say they are likely to have come from Myanmar’s Rakhine state rather than camps in southeastern Bangladesh where nearly one million refugees live, as they did not have identity cards issued by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“It is a very tiny boat compared to its 280 passengers. They are starving. The navy has given them food, water and first aid,” a navy official told AFP.
The men, women and children on the boat – found some 40km south of Saint Martin’s Island – were seen squatting with their hands on their knees, he said.
“It (the boat) is being towed by a navy ship to Bhashan Char (island) where they will stay in quarantine,” he added.
The Rohingya will arrive at Bhashan Char on Friday and join 28 others from the persecuted Muslim minority who were taken there on Saturday.
The earlier arrivals – the first group of Rohingya to be sent to the island – were detained after coming ashore from the other boat stuck at sea.
The Rohingya are not being sent on to the mass camps in the southwest as authorities are afraid they might be infected with the coronavirus.
Rights groups and aid agencies have raised concerns after dozens of stranded Rohingya refugees, who landed at Bangladesh’s southern coast at the weekend, were sent to an inhabitable island in the Bay of Bengal.
Authorities said the 29 Rohingya were relocated to the controversial Bhasan Char island late on Saturday to prevent a possible coronavirus outbreak in the refugee camps located in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.
“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,” said Brad Adams, the executive director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement on Tuesday.
“Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland.”
Bangladesh last year constructed facilities for 100,000 people on Bhashan Char, a muddy silt islet in the cyclone-prone coastal belt, saying they needed to take pressure off crowded border camps that are home to almost one million Rohingya.
They are the first group of Rohingya to be sent to the island, local government administrator Tanmoy Das told AFP, adding they were being looked after by navy personnel who had built the facilities.
Officials said the group – including 15 women and five children – were detained after coming ashore on Saturday from one of two boats suck at sea while trying to reach Malaysia.
Turkey’s state-run aid agency distributed 5,000 food packages to needy Rohingya Muslims on Thursday during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) said that group personally distributed the packages.
The agency has also delivered thousands of hygiene materials to Rohingya Muslims during the month-long fast that began April 24.
The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.
According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.
Since Aug. 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).
More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten, said the OIDA report entitled, Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience.
Rohingya refugees believed to have spent weeks stranded on cramped boats at sea have been sent to a remote, uninhabited island by Bangladesh, while hundreds more remain adrift.
Dozens of Rohingya landed on the coast of southern Bangladesh on Saturday, an official said, with some sent to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the estuary of Bangladesh’s Meghna River.
Hundreds of more refugees remain stranded on at least two trawlers between Bangladesh and Malaysia, according to rights groups, who say south-east Asian governments are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to turn away refugees.
“A small boat carrying 43 people came to shore today,” the Bangladesh government official said. It is not clear how many have been sent to Bhasan Char.
Bangladesh, which hosts about 1 million Rohingya who has fled persecution in Myanmar, previously said it would house refugees on the island, which is accessible only by a three-hour boat ride. The plan has been widely opposed by Rohingya refugees and condemned by NGOs, who warn Bhasan Char is vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges. Human rights groups say that relocating refugees would leave them isolated, with limited access to education and health services.
Yanghee Lee, who recently stepped down as the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, previously said it was unclear whether the island was “truly habitable”.
Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project monitoring group, said the refugees who landed on Saturday had probably come on a small boat from one the larger vessels still at sea, believed to be carrying hundreds of people.
Any organizations representing the Rohingya community in Malaysia are invalid by law and will face government action as the Registrar of Societies had never registered any such organizations, the Home Ministry insisted today.
It also reiterated that Malaysia does not recognize the community as refugees but merely “illegal immigrants”, even if they hold the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identification cards, and therefore have no right to make demands to Putrajaya.
“Besides that, the Home Ministry’s checks found that the Registrar of Societies has never registered organizations under the name of Rohingya or any ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia.
“Therefore, any organizations that represent ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia are invalid under the Societies Act 1966 (Act 335) and can have taken action against them according to legal provisions,” minister Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin said in a statement.
“Therefore UNHCR cardholders from ethnic Rohingya have no status, right and basis to present any demands to the government,” it added.
The harsh statement by the ministry comes even as refugee activists are urging the government and public to show compassion towards the community, that is currently facing heightened vitriol through a purported social media campaign.
The remark also came amid alleged provocations by members of the community, even as the police have already opened investigations against such posts which the community said are part of a disinformation campaign targeting them.
In the same statement today, Hamzah said there are 179,521 UNHCR cardholders in Malaysia as of March, including 56.6 percent or 101,584 from the Rohingya community here.
The Bangladesh government’s new Covid-19 restrictions on access to aid put Rohingya refugees at greater risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The lockdown measures cut humanitarian workers in refugee camps by 80 percent and put the refugees at severe risk of food and water shortages and disease outbreak.
Bangladesh authorities should ensure that any pandemic containment measures do not hinder aid groups’ ability to provide food, water, and health care, or prevent them from protecting refugees most at risk, including women and girls facing violence and domestic abuse.
“Bangladesh authorities need to protect against the spread of Covid-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps, but every effort should be made to limit the harm from lockdown measures,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Any Covid-19-related restrictions shouldn’t significantly hinder aid groups’ ability to provide food, water, health care, and protection.”
On April 8, 2020, the Bangladesh refugee relief and repatriation commissioner issued a directive that restricts services and facilities in the Rohingya refugee camps to those termed “critical” and reduces access for humanitarian aid staff by 80 percent. While these measures were adopted to avoid an outbreak of Covid-19 in the camps, 14 aid workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the drastic reduction in operations capacity has affected their ability to perform even those services deemed “critical.” Health workers said that these interruptions could impede a prompt medical response to the virus and have long-term health consequences.
Appeal made to Bangladesh after its FM said the South Asian country would not accept the boats.
A top UN official has urged Bangladesh to let two stranded boats with Rohingya refugees on board land amid mounting fears over their fate.
On Monday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned of a “human tragedy of terrible proportions” unless action is taken to help the Rohingya on the boats.
“In a spirit of solidarity and at the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadan, I appeal to you in the strongest terms to open your ports and allow the boats to land,” Bachelet said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by AFP news agency.
“The reportedly more than 500 men, women and children aboard these boats have been at sea for an extended period of time, and we understand that they require urgent rescue, food, medical care and other necessary humanitarian assistance.”
The appeal was made to the Bangladesh government after Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the South Asian country would not accept the boats.
His declaration last week raised alarm as it came only days after dozens of Rohingya died on a boat that waited at sea for two months before it could land.
The two new boats are believed to be in international waters hoping to get an opportunity to reach Malaysia.
The Malaysian navy turned back one boat last week and has increased patrols as it expects increased attempts to smuggle people into the country.
There are a million Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh, where they found shelter after fleeing a military crackdown in their native Myanmar in 2018.
Bangladesh will not accept two boats carrying hundreds of reportedly starving Rohingya refugees, the country’s foreign minister said on Thursday (Apr 23) as calls grew to rescue the Muslim outcasts.
The new controversy over stranded Rohingya blew up just a week after dozens starved to death on a boat that was left at sea for two months before it could land.
Activists are fearful that large numbers of Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, may be trapped on boats and unable to reach other countries.
The two latest boats are in international waters after human traffickers had tried to reach Malaysia, according to aid groups and a Rohingya community leader.
Bangladesh has ordered increased patrols in the Bay of Bengal to stop the boats entering, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said.
“Two boats carrying Rohingya are trying to get into our waters,” he said, adding that the vessels could have come from Myanmar’s Rakhine state following fighting between the military and rebel groups, or “somewhere else”.
“Our navy and coastguard are on alert and they have been instructed not to let these boats enter Bangladesh,” Momen said.
“No more Rohingya will be allowed in,” he added.
About one million Rohingya are in camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border having fled decades of persecution in their home region in Rakhine. Many want to leave the camps for other more affluent Asian nations.
Thousands of refugees died in the Andaman Sea in 2015 on rickety fishing vessels that tried to reach Malaysia and Thailand.
The boat that came ashore last week with some 390 Rohingya was forced back by the Malaysian navy. The surviving Rohingya have been put into coronavirus pandemic quarantine, organised by the UN refugee agency.
A Rohingya refugee camp located in Nuh district, in the outskirts of Indian capital New Delhi is facing a severe food shortage, say the inmates.
Since the district located in Haryana province just 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) from the national capital is under severe lockdown after declared as coronavirus or COVID-19 red hotspot, voluntary groups have been unable to deliver food and essentials. Like Nuh, India has declared 107 places as red hotspots.
District administration said though so far, no infected case has been reported form the Rohingya camp, that houses 250 families, the adjoining areas have reported 48 cases.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, resident of the camp Jafarullah said he, along with others, has been running from pillar to post to procure essentials for his community, since the enforcement of lockdown. He worries that his community may die of starvation rather than COVID-19.
On Friday the central government directed all the provinces to screen Rohingya refugees camping in India.
As per UNHCR data, around 40,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in India over the past decade. While the UN body has provided refugee cards to 17,500, India does not recognize this document, since it is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees.
In a statement issued by the Home Ministry, the screening of Rohingya has become necessary as it was noticed that many of them had attended the religious gathering arranged by Tablighi Jamaat. The Jamaat is under fire in India for going ahead with its gathering in March, despite the outbreak of a pandemic.
“Rohingya residing in camps in Hyderabad had attended Tablighi Jamaat gathering at Haryana, and had also attended the meet at the national capital’s Nizamuddin,” said the statement.
Nearly 400 Rohingya refugees who left Bangladesh by boat nearly two months ago have been rescued at sea, the Bangladesh Coast Guard has said, while confirming that at least 32 people died on the journey.