After insisting for weeks that it would not help Rohingya refugees stranded at sea, Bangladesh authorities relented Thursday and towed a boat packed with people to a flood-prone island, saying all refugees found at sea would be taken to the controversial site from now on.
Authorities believe the wooden boat, which was carrying 279 men, women and children, was one of at least two cramped trawlers reportedly adrift at sea after not being allowed to land in Malaysia or Bangladesh. A naval boat spotted the fishing trawler adrift in Bangladesh’s territorial waters, officials said.
“We rescued some 279 Rohingya at around 1 a.m. Thursday about 17 kilometers (10.6 miles) south of Saint Martin’s island. They were in a crowded trawler made in Myanmar,” Afzalul Haque, the director of Bangladesh Navy’s intelligence unit, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“The trawler, now nearing Chattogram, is heading for Bhashan Char,” Haque said, referring to a low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal where a small group of Rohingya was taken on May 3.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh’s foreign minister told BenarNews that the Muslim-majority country would no longer accept Rohingya refugees despite pleas from international agencies concerned about hundreds of refugees stranded on at least two boats.
Dr. Enamur Rahman, the state minister for disaster management, told BenarNews on Thursday the government had decided that refugees found adrift in the sea “will be sheltered at the Bhashan Char.”
“No new Rohingya will be allowed in Cox’s Bazar,” he said, referring to the southeastern district where close to 1 million Rohingya are sheltering after fleeing cycles of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Bangladesh had developed housing and other infrastructure to accommodate thousands of refugees on Bhashan Char, saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in its main camps.
But rights groups had questioned the viability of the location, saying it was vulnerable to cyclones, and aid officials said it would be costly to provide services there. Bangladesh appeared to have indefinitely postponed the plan.
Officials more recently said refugees would no longer be sent to the massive camps in the Cox’s Bazar amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic spreading there.
“We have already sheltered 29 Rohingya at Bhashan Char. These people were floating in the sea for days,” said Rahman, referring to the refugees who arrived in Cox’s Bazar aboard a dinghy on Saturday.
Bangladesh, which has deployed the army to enforce social-distancing measures, has recorded 12,425 coronavirus infections and 199 deaths. But, so far, no Rohingya has tested positive in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, according to health authorities.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews that Dhaka had no information about boats adrift within the nation’s territory. On Sunday, he said that the two had dropped anchor in Myanmar’s territorial waters.
“We won’t take any more Rohingyas,” he said. “Let other countries take them.”
In the biggest cross-border exodus in recent years, some 740,000 Rohingya escaped from Myanmar’s Rakhine state beginning in August 2017 after Naypyidaw’s military launched a brutal crackdown in response to deadly attacks by insurgents on government security posts.
After the huge influx of refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the government developed Bhashan Char, building apartment-type concrete homes on the island about 59 km (37 miles) from the country’s coast.
But no Rohingya agreed to go the island. On Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Bangladesh should not quarantine refugees at Bhashan Char “until they coordinate with the U.N. and other agencies to ensure that proper medical and food assistance are provided.”
Three U.N. agencies – the UNHCR, the International Organization of Migration and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime – warned on Wednesday that the refusal of countries in the region to let boats land could lead to deaths at sea similar to what took place five years ago.
“Deterring movements of people by endangering life is not only ineffective; it violates basic human rights, the law of the sea and the principles of customary international law by which all States are equally bound,” the agencies said in a joint statement.
In May 2015, hundreds of people died at sea, and thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants came ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia after Thailand closed its borders to smuggling boats.
On Thursday, Momen, the foreign minister, appeared to have softened his stance on not accepting any more refugees.
“I still say that we will not accept a single Rohingya. But some of them have been allowed to settle at Bhashan Char on humanitarian grounds,” he said. “They had been floating in the sea for days. After all, they are human beings. We do not want to be so inhuman.”