DHAKA: Around 280 starving Rohingya stranded on a cramped boat in the Bay of Bengal for weeks have been spotted by the Bangladesh Navy and are being taken to a controversial flood-prone island, officials said Thursday.
The boat, one of two trawlers trying to reach Malaysia, was discovered after the navy increased patrols following reports of hundreds of Rohingya adrift at sea.
Authorities say they are likely to have come from Myanmar’s Rakhine state rather than camps in southeastern Bangladesh where nearly one million refugees live, as they did not have identity cards issued by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“It is a very tiny boat compared to its 280 passengers. They are starving. The navy has given them food, water and first aid,” a navy official told AFP.
The men, women and children on the boat – found some 40km south of Saint Martin’s Island – were seen squatting with their hands on their knees, he said.
“It (the boat) is being towed by a navy ship to Bhashan Char (island) where they will stay in quarantine,” he added.
The Rohingya will arrive at Bhashan Char on Friday and join 28 others from the persecuted Muslim minority who were taken there on Saturday.
The earlier arrivals – the first group of Rohingya to be sent to the island – were detained after coming ashore from the other boat stuck at sea.
The Rohingya are not being sent on to the mass camps in the southwest as authorities are afraid they might be infected with the coronavirus.
Bangladesh earlier refused to let the two trawlers land despite UN calls. Three UN agencies on Wednesday issued a renewed joint appeal for the Rohingya to be rescued.
Authorities said they did not know if there were other boats stranded at sea.
So far, no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the sprawling camps that house the Rohingya, most of whom had fled a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar.
Bangladesh last year constructed facilities for 100,000 people on Bhashan Char, a muddy silt islet in the cyclone-prone coastal belt, saying they needed to take pressure off the crowded border camps.
The plan to move the refugees to Bhashan Char has been staunchly opposed by the Rohingya community.
In mid-April, 396 starving refugees were rescued from a trawler stranded in the Bay of Bengal for more than two months. At least 60 people died on the boat.