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Rohingya boat tragedy highlights failure to curb trafficking

At least 32 refugees die as boat bound for Malaysia drifts at sea for two months

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Rohingya boat tragedy highlights failure to curb trafficking

Bangladeshi security personnel attend to a Rohingya refugee following their arrival in Teknaf on April 16. At least 32 Rohingya are believed to have died on an overcrowded fishing boat stranded for nearly two months. (Photo: AFP)

Bangladeshi coast guards have rescued hundreds of starving Rohingya refugees from a fishing boat that had been drifting at sea for nearly two months.

It is feared that at least 32 refugees died on the boat but some media reports put the death toll at 60. Survivors said their bodies were thrown overboard.

The boat was intercepted late on April 15 near the Teknaf area, triggering concerns over trafficking of the Muslim minority similar to the infamous Asian boat people crisis of 2015.

The boat contained 150 men, 182 women and 64 children, mostly from overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.

“They told us that the boat left from here for Malaysia about two months ago but returned after failing to enter Malaysia. They have been handed over to UNHCR after the rescue,” Lt. Cmdr. Sohel Rana from Teknaf station of Bangladesh Coast Guard told UCA News.

The victims were trafficked from camps but the boat failed to enter Malaysia due to coronavirus restrictions, so traffickers abandoned the boat with people adrift on the sea without adequate food and water, the officer said.

“We are always vigilant about trafficking but it continues to happen. We have arrested a number of traffickers but the gang is still active. It seems we are unable to stop trafficking due to the presence of a large number of people in the area,” he added.

Deaths on the boat were due to starvation and fighting between refugees and the crew, AFP news agency reported.

Police are still in the dark about how so many Rohingya could board the boat and head for Malaysia, said Prodip Kumar Das, officer in-charge of Teknaf police station. 

“Police are tasked to maintain law and order in refugee camps, the military controls who gets in or out and coast guards look after marine security. So, we don’t know how these people were able to get out of the camp and onto the boat,” Das told UCA News.

A lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies is a major cause behind the failure to curb trafficking of Rohingya, said Abu Morshed Chowdhury, an anti-trafficking campaigner based in Cox’s Bazar.

“We have an anti-trafficking task force, but it is not working because there is no coordination between various law enforcement agencies, and the local community has not been involved effectively. We must fix the loopholes if we want to stop trafficking,” Chowdhury, president of Cox’s Bazar Civil Society, told UCA News.

James Gomes, regional director of Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong, agreed about the lack of coordination and said refugees were facing psychological pressure.

“Despite relative safety and peace, most Rohingya are frustrated because they see no hope and no future in the camps, and there is no progress about their repatriation. Many are desperate to do anything, even risking their lives,” Gomes told UCA News.

It is also important to improve regional cooperation among countries to combat human trafficking, he added.

Meanwhile, as news of the rescue in Bangladesh spread on April 16, the Royal Malaysian Air Force announced that it had stopped an attempt by another trawler carrying Rohingya to enter the country.

“Due to their poor living conditions back home, the authorities feared that refugees who try to enter Malaysia either by land or by sea will bring a new Covid-19 cluster into the country,” the air force said in a Facebook post.

Air force spotters notified the navy, which deployed two ships to escort the trawler carrying about 200 men, women and children from Malaysian waters. One navy ship delivered food to the trawler on “a humanitarian basis.”

Chris Lewa, director of a Rohingya rights advocacy group, the Arakan Project, criticized Malaysia for not allowing refugees in.

“It is unbelievable that Malaysia is now pushing off Rohingya boats to the high seas. Malaysia has been a leading voice in Asean denouncing Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and it has promoted positive policies in support of Rohingya refugees. Is this another Andaman Sea crisis in the making as in 2015?” Lewa said, adding that Covid-19 cannot be used as an excuse to refuse access to desperate Rohingya refugees.

“Bangladesh proactively engaged in the search and rescue of a Rohingya boat in distress, brought it ashore and is assisting survivors. Malaysia should follow suit,” Lewa told UCA News.

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