The Bangladesh Coast Guard recently rescued an overcrowded fishing trawler in the Bay of Bengal. According to the spokesman for the agency, the vessel had onboard 382 Rohingya people mostly women and children who had been at sea for nearly 60 days. Over 30 of them had dieddue to starvation or poor medical condition and the bodies had to be thrown into the sea. But the ordeal for them did not end with the rescue; theauthorities decided to refrain from questioning the refugees fearing that they may have been infected with the coronavirus.Although Bangladesh authorities have “no reported infections” in the 34 Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar area,but these are overcrowded and enforcing social distancing is extremely demanding.
Likewise, in Myanmar, nearly 130,000 Muslims, predominantly ethnic Rohingya are located in central Rakhine State. They are a highly vulnerable community and live in open-air detention camps and the two government-run health centers do not have COVID-19 testing capacity. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) “Health conditions are already disastrous for displaced these vulnerable communities,”
The Bangladesh Police and Border Guards have stepped up vigil around the refugee camps and sealed the border with Myanmar to prevent any infiltration amid reports that nearly two hundred Rohingya were planning to crossover into Bangladesh through the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. This led to intensificationof vigil by Indian security agencies. The Indian Border Security Force were wasput on high alert along the India-Bangladesh border in South Tripura to prevent Rohingya migrants’ enter India. It is important to mention that very few cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported from any of the northeastern states in India.
However, there are nearly 40,000 Rohingyas’living in India and only 17,500 are registered as refugees with the UNHCR. They are known to have spread across the country.In recent times, members of the Rohingya community has been under scrutiny overcontacts, ‘direct or indirect’, with the TablighiJamaat, an Islamic missionary movement whose members are accused of spreading the new corona virus among large number of people in India. The Rohingya-Tablighilink came into limelight after Indian Ministry of Home Affairs found that many of them had attended TablighiJamaat events in Delhi. They currently account for 30 % of all the recoded cases of COVID-19 in India.
Meanwhile, there have been a number of reports of multiple sighting of boats in the Bay of Bengal carrying Rohingya migrants onboard. Maritime law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia have stepped up maritime surveillance operations along their coastlines and prevented these boats from landing their passenger ashore. In most cases these boats have been pushed back given that these countries are in lockdown due to COVID-19.
In particular, Malaysia had barred the entry of boats carrying Rohingya people and has defended its decision given that the country itself faces a major pandemic at home and has imposed Movement Control Orders across the country. Amnesty International has pressured Malaysian governments to allow Rohingya migrant boats to make landfall, andtake emergency steps to prevent another human disaster. It has condemned Malaysian policy of turning away Rohingya migrant boats in distress and accused it of denying the right to life of those on board.
Rohingya migrant smugglers prefer to conduct operations during November to March when the Bay of Bengal-Andaman Sea waters are generally calm and safest to undertake voyages by small vessels. These boats are generally in poor material state and ill-equipped to undertake sailing; yet, the migrants, who are desperate to get out of Myanmar and Bangladesh where they have been staying for several years now, want to get out and reach safer places. They pay hefty amounts and have reconciled to accepting the challenges of human hardship, starvation, unhygienic conditions on boats for long duration, and even perishing at sea.
The Rohingya issue is mired in political-ethnic conflict and has its origin in Myanmar where they were subjected to genocide by the majority Buddhist community and the military. As many as 750,000 of them had to flee to Bangladesh. The Myanmar military was subjected to international condemnation and the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar corroborated the accusations and characterized the operations as“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. At the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Aung Su Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmarassured that “no tolerance” for human rights abuses.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 pandemic has only heaped more misery of the Rohingya community not only in camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but across the Bay of Bengal. There are now competing issues of humanitarian support for vulnerable communitiesand protection of human rights vis a vis the compelling requirements to enforce lockdown due to the fast spreading corona virus.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.