Relatives of the estimated 500 Rohingya refugee,including women and children, stranded for weeks now at sea,are urging the international community to help them before they perish in the middle of the ocean.
The hundreds of people on board the two boats made the perilous journey fleeing desperate conditions in camps in Bangladesh and attempted to reach Malaysia but appear to have been turned away. Bangladesh has also said it will not allow the boats to dock.
Mohib Ullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, a community group, said he was aware of at least 20 families who were missing relatives. “Every day families are coming and crying in my office,” he said. “They are people of the camp, so they have a right to return to the camp.”
Among those fearing for their loved ones is Razaul, who believes his brother, his sister-in-law and their two children, aged six and eight, are also at sea. He went to visit them in March and was told by neighbours that they had left to go to Malaysia. They have been missing for 53 days.
“I have only one message. My question to the UN and to the government of Bangladesh and others is to allow the boats to come in,” he said. “They can save their lives.”
Last month, the Bangladesh authorities rescued a separate ship, allowing about 400 emaciated people, mostly teenagers, to come ashore after spending two harrowing months at sea.
Passengers were starved and beaten by traffickers, according to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, which treated survivors. More than 70 people may have died on the boat, it has been reported, though no official death toll has been announced. One of the survivors told the Guardian after disembarking, that, as the boat ran out of both food and water, the bodies of other refugees were thrown into the sea.
It is believed that as many as three boats remain stranded, though their location is unclear.
Rohingya refugees, who are unable to return to Myanmar and desperate to escape the hopeless conditions in Bangladesh, are preyed upon by traffickers who charge large sums in exchange for the promise of a better life in Malaysia.
Mohib Ullah fears those on board may be abused by traffickers. “It is too bad, too bad to explain what we are hearing from people,” he said of the conditions on other ships.
Right groups accuse Malaysia, where there has been a rise in xenophobic rhetoric, of using COVID-19 as an excuse to turn back refugees. The country has recently turned away at least two boats.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abdul Momen, has also refused to rescue the boats. The country was already doing far more to support Rohingya than others in the region, he said last week.
Amnesty International said governments should stop pointing at one another and act quickly. “Countries must immediately begin search and rescue operations for the boats,” said Saad Hammadi, the group’s south Asia campaigner, who called on leaders to show compassion before those on board die at sea. (Source: The Guardian)