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Human Rights Watch urges Bangladesh to reverse 'inhumane' Rohingya boat push-backs

A Rohingya boat is apprehended by Malaysian coast guard officers in 2018 [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 April, 2020

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Bangladesh's rejection of boats stranded for several weeks with hundreds of Rohingya refugees on board threatens lives and violates international law, Human Rights Watch has said.
Human Rights Watch has requested the Bangladeshi government grant refuge to hundreds of Rohingya Muslims stranded in two fishing boats off its coast for up to several weeks, saying they need urgent access to food, water and health care and that rejecting the boats would be "inhumane".

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said on Thursday the country would not allow entry to any more Rohingya refugees, who have been fleeing mass atrocities in neighbouring Myanmar.

"I am opposed to allowing these Rohingya into the country because Bangladesh is always asked to take care of the responsibility of other countries," said Momen, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has caused an influx of Bangladeshi nationals returning to the country.

"We have no room to shelter any foreign people or refugees," he said.

Read also: In-depth: For Rohingya refugees, Ramadan under lockdown offers little respite from hardships of life

Bangladesh has taken in nearly a million Rohingya fleeing persecution and state violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

HRW called Bangladesh's government to continue its acts of goodwill to those in need.

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Recent weeks have seen several pushbacks of boats of asylum seekers by countries in the region, which HRW called "inhumane", life-threatening and a violation of international law.

"Bangladesh has shouldered a heavy burden as the result of the Myanmar military’s atrocity crimes, but this is no excuse to push boatloads of refugees out to sea to die," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Bangladesh should continue to help those at grave risk and preserve the international goodwill it has gained in recent years for helping the Rohingya."

Malaysia is known to have recently pushed back to sea at least one fishing trawler with hundreds of Rohingya refugees on board, while Thailand has said it will deny entry to boats of asylum seekers.

Earlier this month, the Bangladeshi coast guard rescued a boat of around 390 Rohingya refugees that had been stranded for nearly two months after being refused entry to Malaysia. The refugees, most of whom were under 20 years old, told Medicins San Frontieres (MSF) that hundreds had died on board and had to be thrown into the sea.

MSF medical staff said many of those on board were "skin and bone" and "barely alive".

Families in refugee camps in Bangladesh told HRW that some of the currently stranded boats may contain Rohingya who fled Bangladesh in recent months in an attempt to reach Malaysia.

Read also: In-depth: Internet ban spreads coronavirus fears faster than infection at Rohingya refugee camps

"Under international law, public health measures taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence," said a HRW statement.

"It may be reasonable to subject those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine. But the pandemic cannot justify a blanket ban such as Bangladesh’s refusal to allow any Rohingya now or in the future to disembark."

The group also called on other countries to assist Bangladesh's strained resources and help set up quarantine centres, provide medical assistance and infrastructure support to help tackle the spread of Covid-19 in refugee camps and surrounding areas.

"Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has called herself the 'Mother of Humanity' for offering protection to Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, but now her government is turning its back on these refugees," Adams said.

"Concerned governments should call on Bangladesh to bring these two Rohingya boatloads ashore and provide generous financial support for these and other refugees living in overcrowded camps."

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