At least 24 Rohingya died at sea after their boat failed to reach Malaysia, the coastguard in Bangladesh said on Thursday after rescuing 396 Rohingya people from the vessel which had been adrift for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia.
“They were at sea for about two months and were starving,” an official from the coastguard told Reuters news agency.
The official said a “final decision” had been made to send those rescued to neighbouring Myanmar. The coastguard initially said 382 had been rescued but later revised the number higher.
Video images showed a crowd of mostly women and children, some stick-thin and barely able to stand, being helped to shore. One refugee told a reporter that the group had been turned back from Malaysia three times and at one point there was a fight on board between the passengers and the crew.
Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya as citizens, and they face severe curbs on their movement as well as access to jobs, healthcare and education.
A boatload of hundreds of emaciated #Rohingya drifted ashore in #Bangladesh after a failed attempt to flee to #Malaysia. 28 reportedly died while adrift. Until justice, rights, & livelihoods improve, many will continue to risk their lives at sea & these horrors will continue… https://t.co/jsPVNmyDpp
— Matthew Smith (@matthewfsmith) April 15, 2020
Lieutenant Commander Sohail Rana, incharge of Teknaf station of Bangladesh coastguard, told Al Jazeera they handed a total of 396 rescued Rohingya refugees to the UNHCR.
“The UNHCR will keep them in quarantine for the next 14 days in a camp inside Bangladesh,” he said, “After that, they will be sent back to their respective homes in Rohingya camps inside Bangladesh.”
Louise Donovon, UNHCR spokesperson, told Al Jazeera the organisation has received the rescued refugees from the coastguard authorities.
“They will be kept inside medical facilities established in the Rohingya camps. If none of them show COVID-19 symptoms in the next two weeks, they will be sent to the transfer centre and subsequently to their homes inside the camps in Bangladesh.”
The designated Bangladesh government’s official of Teknaf region told Al Jazeera the refugees could not reach Malaysia because of the ramped up security following the coronavirus pandemic.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the border and coastguards of all of the countries have ramped up their vigilance. Hence, the refugees on the boat couldn’t get down on the Malaysian shore.”
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled the country in 2017 following a brutal army crackdown, and violence continues in the western state of Rakhine where some remain in squalid camps.
Those forced into Bangladesh live in sprawling refugee camps near the border with Myanmar, which is under investigation at the International Court of Justice for alleged genocide against the ethnic group.
Myanmar denies persecuting the Rohingya and says they are not an indigenous group despite having lived in the country for centuries.
A human rights group said it believed more boats carrying Rohingya were still at sea, because of coronavirus lockdowns in Thailand and Malaysia, a popular destination for the mainly Muslim Rohingya despite the country not being a signatory to the UN refugee convention.
“Rohingya may encounter closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative,” Arakan Project Director Chris Lewa said.
On April 5, Malaysian authorities intercepted a boat found drifting off the coast of the northwestern island of Langkawi and detained more than 200 Rohingya, including children, who were found on board.
In February, at least 15 Rohingya who had been living in the refugee camps in Teknaf died after their boat capsized in the Bay of Bengal. Reports said they had also been trying to get to Malaysia.
A police official in Malaysia’s northern state of Kedah told Reuters that several boats were trying to reach Malaysia and that monitoring had been stepped up. In southern Thailand, a police official said that five boats had been seen off the coast of Satun late on Monday.
It was not possible to independently confirm the comments.
Rohingya have for years boarded smugglers’ boats to get to Southeast Asia, usually during the November to March dry season when the sea is calmer.
Faisal Mahumd contributed to this report from Dhaka, Bangladesh