ASEAN governments urged to open doors for Rohingya refugees stranded at sea


About 500 Rohingya men, women, and children on board two fishing trawlers are currently in the Bay of Bengal after being pushed away by Malaysia which has imposed restrictions on all boats in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two trawlers are headed towards Bangladesh a week after an earlier vessel carrying nearly 400 Rohingya refugees was rescued on April 15.

Amnesty International has urged the Bangladesh authorities and other Southeast Asian governments to rescue and welcome Rohingya refugees currently stranded at sea.

The human rights body asked the governments in the region to carry out search and rescue efforts in line with their international obligations to protect life, and allow safe disembarkation of refugees and asylum seekers at sea according to a press release on Wednesday.

“In contrast to the cruel indifference demonstrated by other governments, who have actively pushed away boats, Bangladesh has maintained its positive record of giving sanctuary to people who have lost their homes and suffered horrific crimes,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

“We hope that Bangladesh will continue to welcome Rohingya refugees in these difficult times. The international community has an obligation to help the Bangladeshi authorities in this task, including in supporting efforts to set up quarantine centres and provide refugees the immediate medical assistance they require to recover from the journey and to protect them against the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

Amnesty International last week called on Southeast Asian governments to launch immediate search and rescue operations for potentially hundreds more Rohingya refugees languishing at sea.

Malaysia has actively brought one vessel to shore but launched aggressive military patrols to scare others with Rohingya refugees away while Thailand has remained silent about the growing crisis, not saying whether it has pushed back boats or if it will assist any boats carrying refugees found near its coast.

The situation revives troubling memories of the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis when an untold number of Rohingya people were not rescued and hundreds lost their lives.

In February 2020, the Taskforce on the Bali Process – which included the participation of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar – “emphasized the primacy of saving lives at sea and not endangering the life and safety of persons in responding to irregular maritime migration.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, Amnesty International said, cannot be a pretext for governments to abandon their responsibilities towards refugees.

“All countries in the region have a responsibility to ensure the seas do not become graveyards for people seeking safety. Bangladesh cannot be left to address this situation alone. The fact that it is upholding its own obligations is not an excuse for others to abandon theirs,” said Biraj Patnaik. (Source: Amnesty Intl.)