As many as five boats believed to be carrying hundreds more Rohingya refugees have been spotted and could be stranded off the coasts of Malaysia and southern Thailand, Amnesty International warned.
On Wednesday, April 15, Bangladesh coastguards found dozens of people dead onboard a boat that was previously refused entry to Malaysia and left adrift for 58 days.
Almost 400 people in the Bay of Bengal were rescued after they spent nearly two months adrift. Survivors said they had attempted to sail to safety in Malaysia but were refused entry by authorities.
On the same day, it has since emerged, another Rohingya boat was intercepted by two Malaysian navy vessels after it was spotted by an air force jet off the north-western island of Langkawi. Malaysian sailors gave the refugees food before escorting them out of the country’s waters, the air force said.
Malaysia’s air force on Friday confirmed it had denied entry to a second boat carrying about 200 Rohingya people, claiming it had done so to prevent further spread of the coronavirus within the country, which remains under lockdown.
Researchers believe other boats are likely to also be stuck at sea, packed with refugees who are attempting to escape desperate and squalid conditions in the city of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Refugee camps on the border of Bangladesh grew to be some of the biggest in the world following a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar.
It is feared that the refugees could remain trapped at sea and unable to disembark as countries cite the spread of COVID-19 as a justification for turning boats back.
“With their poor settlements and living conditions … it is strongly feared that undocumented migrants who try to enter Malaysia either by land or sea will bring [COVID-19] into the country,” the air force said in a statement late on Thursday.
It added that “maritime surveillance operations will be intensified”.
Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, which works on Rohingya rights issues, said that COVID-19 was not an acceptable reason for any country to refuse entry to refugees.
“The duty of the navy is to rescue people at sea, not to push them out and put their life at risk even more,” she said. “What is going to happen? Where are these people going to go?”
The refusal of entry to Malaysia is a worrying sign that the country is becoming increasingly hostile to Rohingya refugees.
While relatively few boats carrying Rohingya have arrived in Malaysia since the 2015 crisis, some have been allowed in. Earlier this month, 202 Rohingya people landed in Langkawi and were detained.
In a statement, Amnesty International called on Malaysia and Thailand to “immediately dispatch search and rescue boats with food, water and medicine to meet the urgent needs of possibly hundreds still at sea”.
Both countries should urgently allow the people to disembark safely, the group said, adding: “Both Thailand and Malaysia are aware that people’s lives are in danger. Refusing to help the people on these boats would not be willfully blind – it would be consciously making their plight even worse.” (Source: The Guardian)