Rohingya refugees face perilous boat journeys with slim hope of asylum

Off the coast of Malaysia, hundreds of Rohingya seek safety by boat Off the coast of Malaysia, hundreds of Rohingya seek safety by boat Amnesty International Thailand

16 June 2020

Human Rights Watch warns that international obligations are being ignored, as fleeing refugees are denied vital assistance and urgent rescue

Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh face life-threatening sea journeys with no guarantees of assistance or asylum in neighbouring countries, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports. Refugees face months afloat in harmful conditions, detention on remote islands, and in numerous cases death at sea. The first half of this year has repeatedly seen boats leaving Bangladesh with hundreds of refugees fleeing overcrowded camps. While Myanmar is mainly behind the Rohingya crisis, neighbouring countries are also shunning both humanitarian responsibility and international law.

Malaysian authorities have turned away refugee vessels in so-called ‘pushbacks’ which prolong hazardous on-board conditions. Most of those who do arrive ashore face arrest in spite of physical injuries, while those who turn back risk insanitary detention in Bangladesh. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) requests urgent humanitarian assistance for fleeing Rohingya, but Malaysia has not responded. Thailand’s navy denies having seen the vessels and Bangladesh shrinks from further responsibility. Though refugee policies vary, all countries are obliged to respond to boats in distress. Malaysia’s stance forms part of the country’s determined Covid-19 response, but the pandemic provides no legal basis for turning away distressed vessels and risking life. International obligations demand accessibility to asylum and that no person be returned to face ill-treatment.

Bangladesh’s camps house about 900,000 Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar, where around 600,000 remain in settlements facing discrimination, persecution and ongoing conflict. HRW calls upon neighbouring countries to pressure Myanmar to address the underlying causes of the crisis and allow international assistance. While responsibility rests primarily with the Myanmar government, it extends to countries where Rohingya seek refuge. HRW points to the pandemic as an opportunity to recognise common humanitarian goals rather than increase division, and echoes UNHCR’s call for Southeast Asian countries to facilitate rescue, assistance, and international protection.


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Author: Edward Jarvis

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