Rohingya refugees at sea face 'grave risk' of coronavirus, UNHCR warns

Rohingya refugees at sea face 'grave risk' of coronavirus, UNHCR warns
The United Nations have warned that turning away Rohingya refugees could prove fatal, especially given the coronavirus pandemic.
2 min read
24 April, 2020
UNHCR calls for "greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by states" to avert a crisis [Getty]
The UNHCR refugee agency have expressed serious concerns over a "grave immediate risk" to Rohingya refugees aboard boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, as hygiene conditions deteriorate and the risk of coronavirus is high.

Fishing trawlers carrying hundreds of Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar, are bound for Bangladesh after being turned back from Malaysia, where they had originally sought asylum, human rights groups say.

Last week, a boat carrying almost 400 starving Rohingya arrived on the southern coast of Bangladesh after drifting for weeks at sea between Thailand and Malaysia, the Bangladesh coast guard said.

Dozens had reportedly died on the journey.

Indrika Ratwatte, director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said it was urging "greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by states" to avert a crisis.

"We are increasingly concerned by reports of failure to disembark vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk this poses to the men, women and children on board," he said.

"In the context of the unprecedented current Covid-19 crisis, all states must manage their borders as they see fit. 

"But such measures should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger."

Rights groups are worried that such immigration restrictions, thought to be an effort to halt the spread of Covid-19, could bring about a repeat of a 2015 crisis when a crackdown by Thailand had smugglers abandoning Rohingya at sea.

Bangladesh officials said they will not accept new arrivals.
However, other officials do not want to abandon the Rohingya at sea.

"If we cannot rescue these Rohingya people then who will take the responsibility for their lives?" another official said.

"We hope that Bangladesh will continue to welcome Rohingya refugees in these difficult times," said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty's South Asia director.

A week ago, Malaysia denied entry to a boat carrying around 200 Rohingya due to coronavirus fears, the air force said.

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