PETALING JAYA: International rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) today urged Putrajaya to grant asylum to Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in the wake of a senior minister’s announcement that such refugees would not be allowed to remain in the country and Bangladesh’s subsequent refusal to take them in.
In a statement, HRW said all countries are responsible for responding to boats in distress, enacting or coordinating rescue operations, and ensuring timely disembarkation in a safe port.
“Southeast Asian governments are callously passing the buck on protecting Rohingya refugees desperate for sanctuary and a future after Myanmar’s military drove them from their homes with mass atrocities,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said.
“While Myanmar remains ultimately responsible for the Rohingya refugees’ plight, Malaysia and Thailand should stop wearing blinders about the immediate risks and suffering that they face at sea.”
Hundreds of Rohingya have in recent times been rescued off Bangladesh after being stranded for long periods on boats, with scores dying on one vessel after Malaysia and Thailand denied it entry.
Just yesterday, it was reported that a boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya attempted to land in Malaysia but turned back after spotting patrol vessels seeking to stop the entry of migrants over Covid-19 fears.
HRW said under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence.
“Subjecting those who arrive to a period of isolation or quarantine may be reasonable. But the pandemic does not justify a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress, risking the right to life of those on board,” it said.
On Tuesday, Senior Minister for Security Ismail Sabri Yaakob said Malaysia would no longer allow Rohingya refugees, especially those who had fled from Cox Bazar, to remain in the country.
He also said the foreign ministry had been asked to discuss with Bangladesh the possibility of deporting the refugees to either Cox Bazar or Bhasan Char Island in the Gulf of Bengal.
He said discussions would also be held with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have them sent to a third country.
Bangladesh however said it was “neither obligated nor in a position to take any more Rohingya”.
Its foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said the Rohingya were not citizens of Bangladesh and that the burden of taking in Rohingya refugees should be shared among other countries as well.
HRW estimates that some 900,000 Rohingya are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. It said most of these fled Myanmar after August 2017 to escape possible genocide and the military’s crimes against humanity.
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