(Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR voiced mounting concern on Thursday over a “grave immediate risk” to Rohingya refugees aboard boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, urging Southeast Asian nations not to close avenues to asylum.
Several fishing trawlers carrying hundreds of Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority from Myanmar, are bound for Bangladesh, after being turned back from Malaysia where they were seeking asylum, according to rights groups.
Last week, a boat carrying nearly 400 starving and emaciated Rohingya arrived on the southern coast of Bangladesh after drifting for weeks in the sea between Thailand and Malaysia, the Bangladesh coast guard said. Survivors said dozens had died.
Indrika Ratwatte, director of UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said it was urging “greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by states” to avert a crisis.
“We are increasingly concerned by reports of failure to disembark vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk this poses to the men, women and children on board,” he said.
“In the context of the unprecedented current COVID-19 crisis, all states must manage their borders as they see fit. But such measures should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger.”
Malaysian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Human rights groups fear restrictions to stem the spread of the virus across Southeast Asia could trigger a repeat of a 2015 crisis when a crackdown by Thailand prompted smugglers to abandon Rohingya at sea on crowded, rickety boats.
Bangladesh officials have said they will not accept new arrivals, but a coast guard official said a search was underway for the boats.
“If we cannot rescue these Rohingya people then who will take the responsibility for their lives?” another official said.
More than a million Rohingya live in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, the majority having been driven from homes in Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown which the Myanmar army said was a response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
Myanmar denies persecuting Rohingya and says they are not an indigenous ethnic group but rather immigrants from South Asia, even though many Rohingya are able to trace their ancestry back centuries.
Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Mark Heinrich