On February 11th, a boat left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh carrying 90 Rohingya refugees, including 23 children, who intended to migrate to Malyasia and escape the stifling conditions of the teeming refugee camps. The boat’s engine failed on February 15th, and it drifted for weeks before finally being discovered by the Indian coastguard. By then, eight people had already died, one person had gone missing, and the 81 survivors were sick from hunger and dehydration.
Although the coastguard has repaired the ship and provided the passengers with food, water, and medical care, the Indian government has not permitted the boat to enter Indian waters. The foreign ministry initially expressed a desire to negotiate the refugees’ return to Bangladesh; however, they have refused to offer any update on the matter. New Delhi has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and is therefore under no explicit, legal obligation to welcome the refugees. Meanwhile the Bangladeshi foreign minister has announced that his government expects India, the closest country, or Myanmar, the Rohingyas’ country of origin, to take in the survivors.
In early March, the Indian foreign minister visited Bangladesh to address an agenda of issues. The talks with his Bangladeshi counterpart covered water sharing, border patrols, and trade, but failed to resolve the matter of the Rohingya refugees. Sources in both Bangladesh and Myanmar claim that their governments have repeatedly rejected India’s requests to receive the displaced persons. Many Rohingyas were forced to flee Myanmar after the military coup of 2017, which brought years of bloodshed and chaos. While Rohingyas may dream of one day returning to their native home under peaceful circumstances, Myanmar currently does not recognize them as an ethnic group and argues that they are illegal immigrants who belong to Bangladesh.
Today, the Rohingya refugees remain stranded on international waters while their families have no guarantee of their safe return. The Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi has reported an ongoing series of frantic calls from the relatives of those at sea who have not been offered any information regarding the identities of the survivors or any means of contacting them. Human rights activists from all over the globe have expressed immense distress over the situation and continue to campaign the Indian government to accept the refugees.
The primary cause for concern is the possibility that they may be forced to return to Myanmar, whose government was ordered to accept 1,000 Rohingya refugees from Malaysia just last month. Myanmar’s military continues to use force against protesters and has been condemned by the Canadian foreign minister for the recent killing of over 100 civilians, including a number of children. Should the stranded Rohingya refugees be coerced back to land they fled from, they would undoubtedly be met with a life of persecution as the political turmoil in Myanmar rages on with no foreseeable end.