Nearly 400 starving Rohingya refugees were recently rescued by Bangladesh’s coast guard after spending almost two months in a fishing trawler that drifted out to sea. One of the survivors from the trawler claimed that at least 28 other refugees had died during their failed attempt to get to Malaysia.
The refugees were mainly made up of women and children, and the boat was recovered on Bangladesh’s southeast coast near Cox’s Bazar this past Wednesday. According to the coast guard in Bangladesh, 396 survivors were on board when the boat made landfall after officials had been searching for the vessel for nearly three-days. The search began after the coast guard received a tip about a “big overcrowded fishing trawler” that seemed to match the description of a typical refugee mode of transportation.
“They were starving. They were floating for 58 days. And over the last seven days [the trawler] was moving in our territorial waters. Earlier this month, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency officials reported they detained a boat carrying some 200 people, believed to be Rohingya refugees, to prevent it from making landfall at the island of Langkawi. It is unclear whether the trawler rescued off Bangladesh is the same one,” said Lt. Shah Zia Rahman, a spokesperson for the Bangladesh coast guard.
One survivor spoke with The Dhaka Times, a local Bangladesh publication, and claimed that the vessel of refugees originally set out to sea two months ago, and they were in fact en route to Malaysia. They did, in fact, get to Malaysia as well, however, by the time they got there, the coronavirus pandemic was at the point it is now. This meant that the trawler was forced to turn back before they could even dock due to the travel restrictions the Malaysian government has enforced for its ports.
“I spoke with at least 10 of the refugees. They told me that before they set out to sea, they were living in Bangladeshi camps housing Rohingya Muslims who have fled neighboring Myanmar. Human smugglers have become notorious for promising refugees safe passage to destinations in Southeast Asia,” said a representative from Bangladeshi Intelligence.
When the vessel was turned away in Malaysia, the refugees were left drifting back into sea without any food or water. It was during this time period that 32 individuals unfortunately died on board, likely due to starvation and/or dehydration.
As stated by the Bangladeshi Intelligence representative, human smugglers have been providing transportation for Rohingya refugees specifically, for a while now. In 2015, a very similar story occurred when a boat full of Rohingya refugees was stranded at sea for weeks while various governments within the region refused to allow permission/protection for them to safely come ashore. Eventually that vessel did dock in Malaysia.
A big part of the reason that refugees from Rohingya are often turned away or refused protection is due to the fact that a majority of them are Muslim, and racist policymakers actively work to turn Muslims away from their countries.
“I believe there are more refugees stranded at sea. [Right now] Rohingya may encounter closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative, and COVID-19 cannot be used to deny access to territory to desperate refugees in distress,” Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, which advocates on behalf of Rohingya people, said.
If there was ever a time for all of us to join together as a human race it would be during a global pandemic. Hopefully as the world continues to combat this virus, our world leaders become a lot more understanding of one another, and we can work together to protect every single person on this planet, regardless of where they’re from.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.