Bangladesh coast guard rescues 396 Rohingya in drifting boat; 32 dead

A boat carrying suspected Rohingya migrants detained in Malaysian territorial waters off the island of Langkawi, on April 5, 2020.
A boat carrying suspected Rohingya migrants detained in Malaysian territorial waters off the island of Langkawi, on April 5, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DHAKA (REUTERS) -  At least 32 ethnic Rohingya died on a ship that drifted for weeks after it failed to reach Malaysia, officials of the Bangladesh coast guard said on Thursday (April 16), following the rescue of 396 starving survivors. 

A human rights group said it believed more boats carrying Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar, were adrift at sea, with coronavirus lockdowns in Malaysia and Thailand making it harder for them to find refuge. 

The Bangladesh coastguard said the ship was brought to shore late on Wednesday. 

"They were at sea for about two months and were starving," one of the coastguard officials told Reuters in a message. 

The 396 survivors aboard would be sent to Myanmar, said the official, who revised the number upwards from an initial count of 382.

Video footage showed a crowd of mostly women and children, some stick-thin and unable to stand, being helped to shore. One emaciated man lay on the sand.

One refugee told a reporter the group had been turned back from Malaysia three times and a fight had broken out onboard between passengers and crew at one point. 

Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya as citizens, and the face severe curbs on freedom of movement as well as access to healthcare and education.

Myanmar denies persecuting Rohingya but says they are not an indigenous ethnic group but immigrated from South Asia. 

More than a million live in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, the majority having been driven from their homes in Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown that the army said was a response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents. 

For years, Rohingya have boarded boats organised by smugglers in the hope of finding refuge in South-east Asia.

The voyages usually take place in the dry season, between November and March, when the sea is calm. 

Rights groups fear restrictions across the region in response to the coronavirus could lead to a repeat of a crisis in 2015, when a crackdown by Thailand meant smugglers abandoned their human cargo at sea on crowed, rickety boats. 

Ms Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, said she believed several more boats were stranded. 

"Rohingya may encounter closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative," she said in a message. 

"Covid-19 cannot be used to deny access to territory to desperate refugees in distress. Another maritime crisis in the Andaman Sea as in 2015 is unacceptable." 

A police official in Malaysia’s Kedah state told Reuters several boats were trying to reach its shores and monitoring had been stepped up. 

A police official in southern Thailand said five boats carrying Rohingya had been spotted off the coast of Satun province late on Monday. It was not possible to independently confirm this. 

People were smuggled out by boat and over land, said Mr Kyaw Hla, a Rohingya from Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where tens of thousands of Rohingya have been confined in camps since a bout of violence in 2012. 

"Within these eight years, there has been no progress, only degradation," he said by telephone. "People can’t stand it.  Since we are locked up and suffocated, people try to leave, of course."

He added, "If the coronavirus breaks out here, we’ll be as good as dead."