Rohingya refugees sent to remote Bangladeshi island after weeks at sea

Hundreds more refugees still stranded on boats after being turned away by Malaysia

Rohingya refugees believed to have spent weeks stranded on cramped boats at sea have been sent to a remote, uninhabited island by Bangladesh, while hundreds more remain adrift.

Dozens of Rohingya landed on the coast of southern Bangladesh on Saturday, an official said, with some sent to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the estuary of Bangladesh’s Meghna River.

Hundreds more refugees remain stranded on at least two trawlers between Bangladesh and Malaysia, according to rights groups, who say south-east Asian governments are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to turn away refugees.

“A small boat carrying 43 people came to shore today,” the Bangladesh government official said. It is not clear how many have been sent to Bhasan Char.


Bangladesh, which hosts about 1 million Rohingya who have fled persecution in Myanmar, previously said it would house refugees on the island, which is accessible only by a three-hour boat ride. The plan has been widely opposed by Rohingya refugees, and condemned by NGOs, who warn Bhasan Char is vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges. Human rights groups say that relocating refugees would leave them isolated, with limited access to education and health services.

Yanghee Lee, who recently stepped down as the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, previously said it was unclear whether the island was “truly habitable”.

Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project monitoring group, said the refugees who landed on Saturday had probably come on a small boat from one the larger vessels still at sea, believed to be carrying hundreds of people.

Described as the world’s most persecuted people, 1.1 million Rohingya people live in Myanmar. They live predominately in Rakhine state, where they have co-existed uneasily alongside Buddhists for decades.

Rohingya people say they are descendants of Muslims, perhaps Persian and Arab traders, who came to Myanmar generations ago. Unlike the Buddhist community, they speak a language similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are reviled by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants and suffer from systematic discrimination. The Myanmar government treats them as stateless people, denying them citizenship. Stringent restrictions have been placed on Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance, education and other basic services.

Violence broke out in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, when militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that  ultimately killed at least 1,000 people and forced more than 600,000 to flee their homes. The UN’s top human rights official said the military’s response was "clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks and warned that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority appears to be a "textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.

When Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power there were high hopes that the Nobel peace prize winner would help heal Myanmar's entrenched ethnic divides. But she has been accused of standing by while violence is committed against the Rohingya.

In 2019, judges at the international criminal court authorised a full-scale investigation into the allegations of mass persecution and crimes against humanity. On 10 December 2019, the international court of justice in The Hague opened a case alleging genocide brought by the Gambia.

Rebecca Ratcliffe

On Saturday, Rohingya refugees whose relatives, including children, have been missing for weeks on the boats, pleaded with international governments to act before they perish. The refugees onboard, who were fleeing desperate conditions in camps in Bangladesh, had attempted to reach Malaysia but were turned away. Two boats carrying approximately 500 people were last spotted off Bangladesh about a week ago. The country’s foreign minister said Bangladesh was already overburdened and would not allow the boats to dock.

Among those fearing for their loved ones is Razaul, who has lived in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh since 2017, when he fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar. He said on Friday he believed his brother, his sister-in-law and their two children, aged six and eight, were at sea. He went to visit them in March and was told by neighbours 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 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 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


Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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