Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have been stranded in the Bay of Bengal on trawler vessels for nearly two months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Guardian.
The refugees had been attempting to reach Malaysia after leaving a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where families are at a heightened risk of coronavirus because of the cramped conditions and lack of water and sanitation. The boats were turned away as they approached the coastline. After trying to return to Bangladesh, the boats were then denied entry because the government said the country was unable to take in more refugees, the Guardian reported.
One of the trawler boats carrying dozens of refugees was recently guided to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited island off the coast of Bangladesh, where the country's government has long been trying to relocate Rohingya refugees.
It’s unclear what will happen to them next.
The United Nations and refugee advocates have urged Bangladesh not to send refugees to the island, because it lacks essential infrastructure and is threatened by rising sea levels.
Hundreds more refugees, who had to pay a hefty fee to make the voyage in the first place, remain stranded at sea. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports that the refugees on board the boats are likely starving and face regular violence.
"Many of them couldn’t stand or walk on their own," Hanadi Katerji, an MSF nurse and medical team leader, said in a statement about the rescue of another boat of Rohingya refugees in April. "They were just skin and bone — a lot of them were barely alive."
More than 1 million Rohingya have found refuge in Bangladesh after being violently expelled from their homes in Myanmar by the country’s army in 2017. Since then, refugees have lived in camps throughout Bangladesh, particularly in Cox’s Bazar. While international relief organizations have worked with Bangladesh's government to provide essential services and support to refugees, the camps are prone to disease outbreaks, violence, and severe poverty. Children, in particular, are suffering from trauma and a lack of education and mental health services.
Efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar have stalled because the country’s leaders have so far failed to provide adequate protection and support to expelled communities.
Many refugees choose to make the perilous, uncertain journey to other countries in the hope of a better life for themselves and their families.