Around 100 Rohingya refugees died at sea, hundreds more left to starve, warns MSF

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Around 100 Rohingya refugees died upon a voyage from refugee camps in Bangladesh to Malaysia earlier this month, with hundreds of others left to starve on the boat at sea, according to a release from Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiéres – MSF).

More than a million Rohingya – Muslims from majority-Buddhist Myanmar’s western Rakhine province – have been forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh since 2017 due to targeted violence at the hands of the Myanmar military which the UN described as having “genocidal intent.”

But in March 2019, Bangladesh announced it was no longer taking in refugees, while conditions in the camps have deteriorated, forcing some Rohingya to try and flee to a new location.

According to MSF, hundreds tried to travel to Malaysia this month – but were beaten and starved by people smugglers on the voyage, with the ship eventually returning to Bangladesh two months later after being denied permission to land in Malaysia. The exact number of people who died is unknown, but MSF estimated it is around 100.

While the return of the ship was reported on at the time, MSF teams who met the survivors have shed new light on the ordeal – and warned that the refugee communities are in urgent need of help.

Malnourished and overwhelmed

The survivors were malnourished and overwhelmed when they returned to Bangladesh, according to the MSF team who met them once the Bangladeshi coastguard rescued the vessel after it was seen driving offshore.

“They were mostly adolescents, young people between the ages of 12 and 20, mostly single males and single females. Many of them couldn’t stand or walk on their own,” said Hanadi Katerji, MSF nurse and medical team leader who was present at the scene. “They were just skin and bone – a lot of them were barely alive.”

Katerji said that many of the men had severe injuries which weren’t healing due to malnutrition.

“There was a large burden of mental health needs. Mostly people were stressed, traumatised, frightened and uncertain,” she described.

A 14-year-old refugee who spoke to MSF confirmed Katerji’s account.

“We were adrift at sea, with people dying every day,” said “Amina,” whose real name has been changed for safety.

“Many people died, especially the men because they couldn’t breathe properly, there wasn’t enough oxygen,” they said.

A boat - not the one referred to here - carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi, Malaysia April 5, 2020. (Reuters)
A boat - not the one referred to here - carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi, Malaysia April 5, 2020. (Reuters)

Renewed calls for justice amid COVID-19

The details of the ordeal come a day after the UN’s human rights expert on Myanmar called for a new investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Rakhine.

UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee accused Myanmar’s military of “inflicting immense suffering” on ethnic minorities in Rakhine and Chin states, including the Rohingya.

“While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine state, targeting the civilian population,” Lee said in a statement issued Wednesday in Geneva.

She accused the military of “systematically violating the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and human rights,” and said its conduct toward civilians “may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Read more: UN rapporteur accuses Myanmar army of fresh abuses

Lee’s comments come as charges of genocide against Myanmar are pending at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands, which agreed to rule on them last year.

UN agencies and human rights organizations have extensively documented atrocities, but Myanmar’s government says it acted justifiably and denies any major abuses during its conflict against the Arakan Army military group.

Lee was also critical of the Arakan Army, which she said “has also conducted its hostilities in a manner that has had negative impacts on civilians, including kidnapping local officials and parliamentarians.”

She added that the guerrilla force had declared a unilateral cease-fire, citing the need to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“The focus of all authorities, including security forces, should be on dealing with the COVID-19 crisis,” Lee said.

For its part, MSF warned that refugees fleeing at sea must be adequately protected.

“We urge all regional authorities to deploy adequate search and rescue capacity to avoid loss of lives, facilitate the disembarkation of people rescued in a place of safety and allow people in need of international protection in as per UNHCR guidance,” the organization told Al Arabiya English.

With The Associated Press.

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