Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency / AP
The Bangladeshi coast guard announced on Thursday that it had saved hundreds of starving Rohingya refugees from a fishing trawler floating at sea. A survivor said at least 28 others died in a failed two-month attempt to reach Malaysia.
The refugees, mostly women and children, were intercepted late Wednesday after the boat attempted to move to the southeast coast of Bangladesh near Cox’s Bazar, the Bangladeshi Coast Guard, Lt. Cmdr. Sohel Rana said.
An official was quoted by The Associated Press as saying 382 survivors were on board, but Reuters reports that the number was later revised up to 396.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard, Lt. Shah Zia Rahman said a tip led to a three-day search for the ship, which he described as a “large overcrowded fishing trawler”.
“You were starving,” he added.
“They were floating for 58 days. And in the past seven days [the trawler] moved in our territorial waters, “said the spokesman.
Earlier this month, officials from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said they had arrested a boat of around 200 people who are believed to be Rohingya refugees to prevent it from landing on Langkawi Island. It is unclear whether the trawler saved from Bangladesh is the same.
One of the survivors identified by The Dhaka Times Md Jobair newspaper said the refugees had left the sea two months earlier and were approaching the Malaysian coast. However, Jobair said that coronavirus restrictions in Malaysia prevented her from landing and the ship was forced to turn.
“Since then we have been floating at sea and 28 people died on the boat without food or water,” he said. A local official put the number of deaths at 32.
A Bangladeshi intelligence officer told the AP that he had spoken to at least 10 of the refugees. He said they told him before they left for the sea that they lived in camps in Bangladesh that housed Rohingya Muslims who fled neighboring Myanmar.
Human smugglers are notorious for promising refugees safe passage to destinations in Southeast Asia. In 2015, a boat filled with Rohingya refugees remained stranded at sea for weeks because various governments in the region refused permission to go ashore. Eventually, Malaysia and Indonesia gave way.
International observers say that the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has long been persecuting ethnic Rohingya, most of whom are Muslims. Myanmar contests the claim, despite recognizing military action against the group in 2017 that resulted in the exodus of more than a million Rohingya. Most of these refugees are still housed in refugee camps near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan project working for the Rohingya, tells Reuters that she believes more refugees have been stranded at sea.
“Rohingya may come across closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative,” she said in a message to the news agency. “COVID-19 cannot be used to deny desperate refugees in need of access to the territory.”