Hundreds of starving Rohingya rescued from drifting boat

Bangladesh coastguard find 24 dead aboard vessel believed to have been at sea for two months

A boat carrying suspected ethnic Rohingya migrants is seen detained in Malaysian territorial waters, in Langkawi, Malaysia April 5, 2020. Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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At least two dozen ethnic Rohingya died on a ship that drifted for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, Bangladesh coastguard officials said on Thursday, following the rescue of 396 starving survivors.

For years, Rohingya from Myanmar have boarded boats organised by smugglers in the hope of finding refuge in South-East Asia, usually making voyages during the dry season from November to March, when the waters are calm.

A human rights group said it believed more boats carrying Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, were adrift at sea, with coronavirus lockdowns in Malaysia and Thailand making it harder for them to find refuge.

"They were at sea for about two months and were starving," a Bangladesh coastguard official told Reuters, adding that the ship was brought to shore late on Wednesday.

The survivors aboard would be sent to Myanmar, said the official.

Video images showed a crowd comprised mostly of women and children, some stick-thin and unable to stand, being helped to shore. One emaciated man lay on the sand.

One refugee told a reporter the group had been turned back from Malaysia three times and a fight had broken out on board between passengers and crew at one point.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya as citizens, and they face severe curbs on freedom of movement as well as access to health care and education.

Myanmar denies persecuting Rohingya and says they are not an indigenous ethnic group but emigrated from South Asia, despite many being able to trace their ancestry back centuries.

More than a million live in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, the majority having been driven from homes in Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown the army said was a response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

Rights groups fear virus curbs across South-East Asia could trigger a repeat of a 2015 crisis, when a crackdown by Thailand prompted smugglers to abandon their human cargo at sea on crowded, rickety boats.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, said she believed several more boats were stranded.

"Rohingya may encounter closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative," she said in a message.

"Covid-19 cannot be used to deny access to territory to desperate refugees in distress. Another maritime crisis in the Andaman Sea, as in 2015, is unacceptable."

Several boats were trying to reach Malaysian shores and monitoring had been stepped up, a police official in the north-western state of Kedah told Reuters.

A police official in southern Thailand said five boats carrying Rohingya had been spotted off the coast of Satun province late on Monday.

People were smuggled out by boat and over land, said Kyaw Hla, a Rohingya from Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where tens of thousands of Rohingya have been confined in camps since a bout of violence in 2012.

"Within these eight years, there has been no progress, only degradation," he said by telephone. "People can’t stand it. Since we are locked up and suffocated, people try to leave, of course."

He added, "If the coronavirus breaks out here, we’ll be as good as dead."