Bangladesh under 'no obligation' to accept Rohingya refugees rescued from sea: Minister

Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar in 2017 after a deadly crackdown by the military. PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (REUTERS) - Bangladesh is under "no obligation" to shelter 81 Rohingya Muslim refugees adrift for almost two weeks on the Andaman Sea and being assisted by neighbouring India, said Bangladesh foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen.

India's coast guard found the survivors and eight dead crammed on a fishing boat and were trying to arrange for Bangladesh to take them, Indian officials said on Friday (Feb 26). While feeding the refugees and giving them water, India was not planning to take them ashore. But Mr Momen told Reuters late on Friday that Bangladesh expects India, the closest country, or Myanmar, the Rohingyas' country or origin, to accept them.

"They are not Bangladesh nationals and in fact, they are Myanmar nationals. They were found 1,700km away from the Bangladesh maritime territory and therefore, we have no obligation to take them," said Mr Momen, who is in the United States.

"They were located 147km away from Indian territory, 324km away from Myanmar," he said by phone, adding that other countries and organisations should take care of the refugees. Indian foreign ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

New Delhi did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them. Nor does it have a law protecting refugees, though it currently hosts more than 200,000, including some Rohingya.

More than one million Rohingya refugees from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar are living in teeming camps in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, including tens of thousands who fled after Myanmar's military conducted a deadly crackdown in 2017. Traffickers often lure Rohingya refugees with promises of work in South-east Asian countries like Malaysia. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed alarm this week over the missing boat.

No 'global contract' to aid refugees

The refugees have been drifting in international waters after leaving southern Bangladesh on Feb 11 in the hope of reaching Malaysia. On Saturday, they were under the aid and surveillance of India as officials held talks to return them to Bangladesh. The boat, which sailed from the massive Cox's Bazar refugee camp, was carrying 56 women, eight girls, 21 men and five boys.

Many of the survivors, according to Indian officials, were sick and suffering from extreme dehydration, having run out of food and water after the boat's engine failed four days into their journey.

"Has Bangladesh been given the global contract and responsibility to take and rehabilitate all the Rohingya or boat people of the world?" Mr Momen said. "No, not at all."

He said the UNHCR should also take responsibility, as 47 people on the boat hold ID cards from the UNHCR office in Bangladesh stating that they are displaced Myanmar nationals.

"If (the refugees) are UNHCR card holders, why did they allow traffickers to take their card holders to adrift on the high sea leading to death?"

UNHCR officials were not immediately reachable for comment.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.