Bangladesh's coast guard said Thursday that it rescued hundreds of starving Rohingya refugees from a fishing trawler that had been drifting at sea. A survivor said at least 28 others died during a failed, two-month effort to reach Malaysia.
The refugees, mostly women and children, were intercepted late Wednesday after the boat attempted to make landfall on Bangladesh's southeast coast near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh coast guard Lt. Cmdr. Sohel Rana said.
An official was quoted by The Associated Press as saying 382 survivors were aboard, but Reuters reports that the number was later revised upward to 396.
A coast guard spokesman, Lt. Shah Zia Rahman, said a tip led to a three-day search for the vessel, which he described as a "big overcrowded fishing trawler."
"They were starving," he added.
"They were floating for 58 days. And over the last seven days [the trawler] was moving in our territorial waters," the spokesman said.
Earlier this month, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency officials said they detained a boat carrying some 200 people, believed to be Rohingya refugees, to prevent it from making landfall at the island of Langkawi. It is unclear whether the trawler rescued off Bangladesh is the same one.
One of the survivors, identified by The Dhaka Times newspaper as Md Jobair, said the refugees had set out to sea two months previously and approached the Malaysian coast. However, Jobair said coronavirus restrictions in Malaysia prevented them from making landfall and the vessel was forced to turn back.
"Since then, we were adrift on the sea and without food or water some 28 people had died on the boat," he said. A local official put the number of dead at 32.
A Bangladeshi intelligence official told the AP he had spoken with at least 10 of the refugees. He said they told him that before they set out to sea, they were living in Bangladeshi camps housing Rohingya Muslims who have fled neighboring Myanmar.
Human smugglers have become notorious for promising refugees safe passage to destinations in Southeast Asia. In 2015, a boat filled with Rohingya refugees remained stranded at sea for weeks as various governments in the region refused to grant permission for them to come ashore. Eventually, Malaysia and Indonesia relented.
International observers say Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long persecuted ethnic Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim. Myanmar denies the allegation, despite acknowledging a 2017 military crackdown on the group, which prompted the exodus of more than a million Rohingya. Most of those refugees are still housed in refugee camps near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, which advocates on behalf of Rohingya people, tells Reuters that she believes there are more refugees stranded at sea.
"Rohingya may encounter closed borders supported by a xenophobic public narrative," she said in a message to the news agency. "COVID-19 cannot be used to deny access to territory to desperate refugees in distress."