Up to 500 Rohingya refugees are stranded on two fishing trawlers in the Bay of the Bengal, Human Rights Watch has reported. Along with the U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner and Amnesty International, it has called on the governments of Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia to urgently launch search and rescue operations to locate the refugees. With speculation that the men, women and children onboard the trawlers have been at sea for weeks without food or water, they are likely to be in a desperate race for survival. However, they also lie at the mercy of strong political forces, as governments turn inwards in a bid to address to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Abdul Momen, has reinforced the nation’s toughened stance towards Rohingya refugees. “Bangladesh is always asked to take care of the responsibilities of other countries,” he argued, adding that during the current pandemic, “we have no room to shelter any foreign people or refugees.” Bangladesh has, since the Myanmar government’s ethnic cleansing and probable genocide of Rohingya people in August 2017, accommodated up to 1 million Rohingya refugees. Nevertheless, U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has warned Minister Momen of a “human tragedy of terrible proportions” if Bangladesh does not continue to uphold its humanitarian responsibilities to these stricken people.
The Rohingya families stranded on these fishing trawlers are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Already stateless and unprotected, their plight has been worsened by Coronavirus, as southeast Asian governments cite the current health crisis as their reasoning for turning away refugees. Yet it is not only a moral necessity to save the stranded Rohingya refugees: it is a logical one. The COVID-19 pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the inefficacy of hard-line approaches to refugee migration taken by governments such Thailand and Malaysia. Each are home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, despite their governments’ refusals to ratify the U.N. Refugee Convention and their denial of basic legal, healthcare, employment rights to displaced people already living within their borders.
The presence of untraceable people living in these populations has been detrimental to efforts to control the current pandemic. In Malaysia, Al-Jazeera has reported that large numbers of Rohingya refugees attended a religious event in Kuala Lumpur, which is now known to have been a hotspot for COVID-19 infections. Due to fears of arrest, Rohingya refugees are refusing to come forward for testing, and may be spreading COVID-19 undetected throughout the population. The authorities have since promised that these Rohingya refugees can have access to testing and will not be prosecuted. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of legally unrecognised and untraceable people continue to move around the country. For the sake of Malaysia’s entire population, healthcare rights must be provided to all refugees residing there.
These rights must now also be extended to refugees throughout southeast Asia, including the Rohingya families stranded in the Bay of Bengal. If they are not saved, a human tragedy is likely to unfold. Should the refugees overcome the odds and enter any nation through illegal channels, they will be untraceable and vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19 undetected. The only viable option, therefore, is for governments to rescue these people and to afford them basic healthcare rights – along with the thousands of others who are criss-crossing the Andaman Sea in search of refuge.
To make such a systemic change in approach possible, richer states in the Global North must dramatically increase aid funding for refugee resettlement schemes in southeast Asia. This would help to ensure refugees can live in more sanitary and humane conditions, while enabling host countries to mitigate the strain placed on already burdened housing and healthcare systems. Only through this holistic change in approach can refugees and the countries they inhabit be protected from this brutal pandemic in the months – and possibly years – to come.