Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Date: 17 April 2020
Subject: Myanmar/Bangladesh – Rohingya
We are shocked by the news that more than 30 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have died on board a boat in the Bay of Bengal, and that nearly 400 others were found dehydrated, malnourished and in need of immediate medical attention after nearly two months at sea. Many of those on board the vessel were women and children.
The UN Refugee Agency and partners in Bangladesh are currently providing shelter and assistance to the survivors who disembarked from the boat on Thursday morning.
We are aware of reports that this boat had repeatedly sought a safe harbour, but the vessel was unable to land in Malaysia. Whatever efforts are taken to combat people smuggling, this should be a time for compassion towards those in desperate need of assistance and protection. In light of reports of other vessels in similar circumstances still at sea, we strongly urge stepped-up search and rescue efforts to be conducted in a timely manner.
All States should ensure that their responses to migrants in distress at sea are based on international human rights and refugee law, and that they are permitted safe disembarkation. Dangerous interception practices, including pushing back boats that are trying to land, must be scrupulously avoided.
The refugees’ horrific journey at sea is sad reminder of events a few years ago when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled persecution at the hands of the authorities in Rakhine state. Many today are still living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. In 2015-16, many Rohingya took dangerous journeys by boat from Myanmar and Bangladesh to other countries in the region.
Today, we are aware that the situation in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State is again dire. There has been a spike in violence between the ethnic Arakan Army armed group and the Myanmar army, impacting civilians of all ethnic groups living in the area, including Rohingya, Rakhine, Chin, Mro, Daignet and others. Myanmar’s military has been carrying out almost daily airstrikes and shelling in populated areas resulting in at least 32 deaths and 71 injuries since 23 March, the majority women and children, and destroying and burning schools and homes.
Despite the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for a ceasefire have been ignored.
Further complicating the situation, there has been an internet blackout in nine townships across Rakhine and Chin States since June 2019. This blackout has greatly hampered the availability of reliable public information on hygiene, physical distancing precautions and other preventative measures. Internet restrictions have also been applied by the Bangladesh authorities to the Rohingya refugee camps.
We call on parties to the conflict in Myanmar to heed the calls for a ceasefire and to adhere to their obligations under international human rights and international humanitarian law by protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure. We also call on the Myanmar Government to immediately lift the internet ban and grant humanitarian access to all conflict-affected areas. Continued hostilities will not only exacerbate the suffering of civilians but also hamper efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bangladesh has provided important protection to the refugees and should continue to do so, and should also facilitate their free access to information and communication.
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