As countries scramble to contain the spread of COVID-19 in their territories while prioritizing the well-being of their citizens, Rohingya refugees are again facing widespread rejection. Hundreds are currently stranded at sea in the Bay of Bengal.
Nearby countries have tightened border controls to slow the COVID-19 outbreak, and refugees have become an issue that no country wants to deal with.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said on Thursday that his country would not accept two additional boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees, AFP reported. The two latest boats are in international waters after human traffickers tried to land them in Malaysia, according to aid groups.
In mid-April, Bangladesh rescued 382 refugees from another boat after it was rejected by Malaysian and Thai authorities.
Malaysian authorities have cited coronavirus concerns to justify their rejection, following reports that as many as 60 Rohingya aboard the crammed boat had starved to death after being stranded in the Bay of Bengal for more than two months.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Bangladeshi authorities to take in the stranded refugees, arguing that the inhumane rejections have placed the asylum seekers’ lives at risk.
HRW's Asia director Brad Adams said Bangladesh should continue to help those at grave risk and preserve the international reputation it had gained in recent years for helping the Rohingya.
“Bangladesh has shouldered a heavy burden as the result of the Myanmar military’s atrocious crimes, but this is no excuse to push boatloads of refugees out to sea to die,” he said in a statement.
Bangladesh has accepted more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to avoid persecution following the military crackdown against the minority group that began in 2017.
While Bangladesh has been hailed for its acceptance of the refugees, it also faces serious COVID-19 challenges. The least-developed country reported 309 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, dipping slightly from Friday's high of 503, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 4,998.
Myanmar has consistently dismissed criticism of its treatment of minorities, in a move that has attracted international attention and subsequently brought pressure to ASEAN as a group.
ASEAN, through its humanitarian assistance agency, the AHA Center, has promised to lead a regional response to help Myanmar repatriate the refugees.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Asia and Pacific bureau director Indrika Ratwatte said that while ASEAN countries have to manage their borders during the COVID-19 crisis, “such measures should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum or in forcing people to return to situations of danger”.
He cited ASEAN leaders’ commitment to ensure joint action and a whole-society approach in handling the pandemic. The commitment was declared at the recent ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19.
“Leaving no one behind is the only lasting means of ensuring that we collectively beat this global challenge, and we are all only as strong as our most vulnerable members," he said on Thursday. "Saving lives at sea must be a collective effort, in which any one state that rescues and disembarks refugees can draw on resources pooled from other states in the region."
Indonesia’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR), Yuyun Wahyuningrum, pointed out that the bloc had already established COVID-19 health protocols requiring people entering the country to undergo a 14-day quarantine in designated places.
“We should not repeat the same mistake that happened in 2015, when dozens of Rohingya people died at sea because their boats were prevented from landing in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The right to seek asylum is guaranteed in Article 16 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration [AHRD],” she said.
She was referring to similar incidents of refugees stranded in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015, which prompted dozens of countries to agree to the 2016 Bali Declaration, which outlined principles and the way forward to prevent another crisis.
In February of this year, the task force on planning and preparedness from the Bali Process made a commitment to saving lives when responding to “irregular maritime migration”. Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh are all members.