DHAKA – Bangladesh's coast guard has rescued 396 starving Rohingya refugees who had been drifting at sea for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, officials said Thursday.
The U.N. refugee agency received them from the authorities, UNHCR said in a statement.
The refugees, including many women and children, were attempting to land on Bangladesh's coast in the Teknaf area in Cox’s Bazar late Wednesday night, said Lt. Cmdr. M. Sohel Rana, the local head of the coast guard.
Officials gave varying accounts of whether those rescued had been among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar.
Rana said the refugees started their journey for Malaysia about two months ago and had been drifting at sea for weeks.
“They failed to reach Malaysia and returned,” he said.
A.B.M. Masud Hossain, police superintendent in Cox’s Bazar, said the refugees were lured by traffickers and the owner of the boat was a Myanmar Buddhist. The rescued refugees included 182 women and 64 children, he said.
Others said the refugees were from Bangladesh camps.
An intelligence official who talked to at least 10 refugees at the scene said they came from camps in Cox’s Bazar. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said the boat had attempted to land in Malaysia at least seven times. He said one refugee told him that several people had died on the journey.
Local media reported that up to 28 people died but officials could not confirm it.
The United News of Bangladesh and bdnews24.com said they died of starvation.
The UNHCR could not confirm those reports. Spokeswoman Louise Donovan said in an email that the refugees were being transported to quarantine facilities, and would receive medical attention.
“The UNHCR is grateful to the government and local authorities for enabling the safe disembarkation of close to 400 Rohingya refugees from a distress boat near Teknaf overnight, as well as to the local community for their quick action to provide immediate support,” she said.
“We understand these men, women and children were at sea for nearly two months in harrowing conditions and that many of them are extremely malnourished and dehydrated. Our primary concern is for people’s immediate health and first aid needs,” she said.
She said they would enter a 14-day quarantine as a precaution against the coronavirus.