Rohingya Refugees: Covid-19 No Basis for Pushing Back Boats

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Publish Date : 04/26/2020 12:35
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The pandemic does not justify a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress, risking the right to life of those on board.

The Rohingya risking their lives at sea are fleeing persecution and dangerous conditions. Over800,000 Rohingya Muslims are currently living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, the bulk of whom were driven out of Myanmar by a military campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that began in August 2017.


“In recent times, after the Bangladesh government imposed more restrictions on the Rohingyas and planned to relocate some of them to a dangerous uninhabited island [Bhasan Char], more and more Rohingya are willing to flee Bangladesh.” said Noor Hossain, a Rohingya community leader from Balukhali refugee camp.

According to Human Rights Watch, Malaysia’s government is risking lives by pushing back overloaded boats of Rohingya refugees. The government can appropriately respond to the Covid-19 pandemic without blocking life-saving rescues of seaborne asylum seekers.


Malaysia has recently pushed back to sea at least two boats filled with 200 Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh coast guard officials intercepted another boatload of refugees that, survivors said, had been turned away from Malaysian waters almost two months earlier. A total of 382 starving Rohingya refugees were taken off the boat and survivors reported that at least 30 people on board had died before the rescue.

Monitors also believe there could be another vessel still at sea with hundreds more Rohingya stranded, further highlighting the need for governments in the region to get involved in search and rescue operations if needed. Malaysia has actively brought one vessel to shore but launched aggressive military patrols to scare others with Rohingya refugees away while Thailand has remained silent about the growing crisis, not saying whether it has pushed back boats or if it will assist any boats carrying refugees found near its coast.

“Malaysia’s claims to support the rights of the Rohingya mean shockingly little when they push desperate refugees back to sea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Covid-19 pandemic does not create a justification for risking the lives of refugees on overcrowded boats.”

Under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. Subjecting those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine may be reasonable. But the pandemic does not justify a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress, risking the right to life of those on board. Malaysia’s pushback policy also violates international obligations to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they would face a risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

“Leaving the Rohingya stranded at sea will make them more vulnerable to Covid-19, which will only serve to exacerbate the global pandemic,” said Shamini Kaliemuthu, Forum-Asia executive director. Screening, quarantining and other measures could be arranged. These would enable authorities to manage the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees in a safe manner while respecting international refugee protection standards.

“Rohingya families can’t see an end to their plight and are increasingly willing to risk death or injury by making perilous journeys at sea in overcrowded, unsafe boats – often at the mercy of traffickers and criminal organisations – all for a chance at a better life,” said Athena Rayburn of Save the Children.



“ Rohingya Refugees: Covid-19 No Basis for Pushing Back Boats ”