The Bangladeshi government has been urged to open its ports and allow two boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees to come ashore so they can be given urgent medical care, food and water.
It is believed more than 500 people, including children, are onboard the stranded trawlers, which were recently seen in the Bay of Bengal but have reportedly returned to the high seas.
Last week, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abdul Momen, said the boats would not be allowed entry, adding: “Bangladesh is always asked to take care of the responsibility of other countries.”
Earlier this month, Bangladesh rescued a separate boat that had been left adrift for two months after attempting to reach Malaysia. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières, which treated about 400 survivors, said the passengers were mostly aged between 12 and 20, and some younger children were also onboard. More than 70 people are reported to have died on the boat.
“Many of them couldn’t stand or walk on their own,” said Hanadi Katerji, MSF nurse and medical team leader. “They were just skin and bone – a lot of them were barely alive.”
The boat had carried hundreds of Rohingya refugees fleeing desperate conditions in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where more than 1 million refugees live in overcrowded camps. It had attempted to reach Malaysia but was turned away.
It is not clear how long the two boats stranded off Bangladesh have been stuck at sea, or how many additional ships may be adrift elsewhere.
“They will be at high risk of death because that’s what we’ve heard in testimonies of survivors that were rescued previously by the Bangladesh government,” said Saad Hammadi, south Asia campaigner at Amnesty International. “It’s a responsibility of all governments in the region to ensure that their seas do not turn into invisible graveyards.”
On Friday, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, wrote to Momen describing the situation as “a human tragedy of terrible proportions”.
“I appeal to you in the strongest terms to open your ports and allow the boats to land,” she wrote. “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.”
Bachelet added that she was also encouraging other governments in the region to take similar action.
Malaysia has turned away at least two boats, with the country’s air force stating that it recently refused entry to about 200 refugees in order to prevent further spread of the coronavirus within the country, which remains under lockdown.
Rights groups fear that governments are using the global health crisis as a pretext to push boats back, and say it is an alarming reminder of a 2015 Andaman sea crisis, when many Rohingya died at sea after south-east Asian nations refused them entry.
Momen said Bangladesh could not rescue any more people, adding that the country had “no room to shelter any foreign people or refugees”.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar following a brutal army crackdown that began in August 2017. The UN has since described the military’s actions as ethnic cleaning and akin to genocide.
Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Bangladesh had “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”.
He added: “Bangladesh should continue to help those at grave risk and preserve the international goodwill it has gained in recent years for helping the Rohingya.”