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COVID-19 no excuse to sacrifice lives as more Rohingya people seek safety by boat

Southeast Asian governments must immediately launch search and rescue operations for likely hundreds of Rohingya languishing at sea, amid mounting reports of vessels attempting dangerous trips in search of safety, said Amnesty International on Saturday (18 April).

Source: Amnesty International

In a repeat of the humanitarian crisis that the region saw five years ago, Malaysia has actively pushed back boats and turned desperate Rohingya people away, while Thailand has not said whether it has assisted any ships travelling off its coast. For years boats carrying thousands of desperate Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Myanmar or refugee camps in Bangladesh have been found at sea, seeking refuge in Southeast Asia. 

Amnesty International calls on regional governments to allow them safe disembarkation, and for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to urgently agree emergency measures to prevent another humanitarian crisis while accommodating governments’ existing COVID-19 restrictions at their borders. 

“The battle against COVID-19 is no excuse for regional governments to let their seas become graveyards for desperate Rohingya people,” 

“Regional governments have been here before and have the means to save their lives.

“Without urgent cooperation, ASEAN will face a new humanitarian crisis while also battling a pandemic. It is unacceptable that boats are going unaided and that some are being actively turned away from safe shores," said Clare Algar, Senior Director for Research, Advocacy & Policy. 

Reports of people attempting dangerous journeys

Amnesty International has received information about an estimated three to five boats likely carrying Rohingya refugees spotted off the coasts of Malaysia and southern Thailand in recent days, with hundreds of people believed to be on board. 

On 16 April, the Royal Malaysian Navy turned back a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya women, men and children, while reportedly providing food to those on board. The Malaysian government has cited COVID-19 measures as justification for turning boats away from their coast. 

On 15 April, the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 396 Rohingya people from a large boat. The boat had been turned back by the Malaysian authorities and is believed to have been at sea for two months. 

Early reports stated that 32 people on the boat died at sea, but the figure is now thought to be almost double that. UNHCR – the UN refugee agency – says that the survivors are severely malnourished and dehydrated. 

Regional response urgently needed

Regional governments have enacted new emergency restrictions at their borders in response to COVID-19. Malaysia and Thailand have been monitoring the movements of boats carrying Rohingya people off their coasts. While Malaysia has brought one vessel to shore, it has pushed several more back. Thailand has not stated whether it has intercepted any boats or come to their rescue. 

“Both Thailand and Malaysia are aware that people’s lives are in danger. Refusing to help the people on these boats would not be willfully blind – it would be consciously making their plights even worse. 

“Thailand and Malaysia should immediately dispatch search and rescue boats with food, water and medicine to meet the urgent needs of possibly hundreds still at sea. They should urgently allow these people safe disembarkation. This is compatible with the COVID-19 measures in place, as Malaysia has successfully shown earlier this month," said Clare Algar.

On 5 April, another boat carrying 202 Rohingya people was intercepted by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Its passengers were brought to safety and are now in COVID-19 quarantine. 

Earlier this week, ASEAN member states issued a declaration following its virtual summit on COVID-19, affirming the bloc’s commitment to being a “caring and sharing ASEAN Community where ASEAN Member States help each other in this challenging time”. The regional bloc previously committed to “learn from past crises and strengthen the inclusion of migrants”, particularly in emergency situations. 

“Just this week, ASEAN governments signaled their solidarity in this difficult moment,” said Clare Algar. “They must extend their compassion to those in desperate danger at sea.

“ASEAN states must ensure that policies on COVID-19 uphold everyone’s rights and do not jeopardize people in need of humanitarian assistance and international protection.”

Background 

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has affirmed that states’ prerogative to regulate the entry of foreigners to their territories cannot – even in the context of a global pandemic – result in a denial of people’s right to seek asylum from persecution. Likewise, the International Organization for Migration stated that human rights obligations and international maritime law must be upheld during the COVID-19 response. This week the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights also called on European Union member states to continue to save lives at sea and provide for the safe disembarkation of passengers despite the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic. 

Crimes against humanity have continued against the estimated 600,000 Rohingya still living in Rakhine State, Myanmar. And after several waves of brutal military operations in 2016 and 2017, nearly 1 million Rohingya live in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, dependent on humanitarian assistance for their survival. 

International law imposes obligations on states to protect the human rights of refugees arriving on their shores.

The principle of non-refoulement obliges states not to return anyone to a territory where they would be at risk of persecution or serious human rights violations. The principle is the cornerstone of international refugee protection and is fundamental to the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 

Malaysia and Thailand are not parties to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) or its 1967 Protocol. However, the principle of non-refoulement is also protected under general international human rights law, as well as customary international law, which is binding on all states. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration also includes the right to “seek and receive asylum.”