A Bangladesh coast guard has rescued 396 starving survivors on a ship that drifted for weeks after it failed to reach Malaysia, officials said on Thursday. More than 25 people are reported to have died.
A local government administrator said officials were still counting the rescued but that he feared the number could exceed 400. The Dhaka Tribune said the ship was packed with nearly 500 Rohingya.
A human rights group said it believed more boats carrying Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar, were lost at sea, with coronavirus lockdowns in Malaysia and Thailand making itdifficult for them to find refuge.
Video footage showed a crowd of mostly women and children, many of whom looked malnourished and unable to stand. One emaciated man lay on the sand.
One refugee reported that the group had been turned back from Malaysia three times and a fight had broken out onboard between passengers and crew at one point.
“They were at sea for about two months and were starving,” a Bangladesh coastguard official told Reuters in a message, adding that the ship was brought to shore late on Wednesday.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said that they were informed that men, women and children were at sea for nearly two months in harrowing conditions and that many of them are extremely malnourished and dehydrated.
A statement released by the agency said: “UNHCR is offering to assist the government to move these people to quarantine facilities.”
Media reports that the group was infected with the virus had not been substantiated, the agency added.
Myanmar formerly Burma, does not recognise Rohingya as citizens, and continue to face severe persecution, including restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare and education.
The Southeast Asian country denies persecuting Rohingya and says they are not an indigenous ethnic group but immigrants from South Asia.
More than a million Rohingya live in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, while the majority were driven from their homes in Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown in which the army said was a response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, said she believed several more boats were stranded.
“Rohingya may encounter closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative,” she said.
“COVID-19 cannot be used to deny access to territory to desperate refugees in distress. Another maritime crisis in the Andaman Sea, as in 2015, is unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, with few opportunities for jobs and education in the camps, thousands of Rohingya have attempted to reach other countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.
Since late last year, Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies have picked up some 1,000 Rohingya from coastal villages and boats as they waited to board vessels bound for Malaysia.