'Thousands' of Rohingya waiting to sail to safety in Bangladesh
Several thousand are stranded on Myanmar's shores in deteriorating conditions, waiting for boats to take them across the Naf River.
SHAH PORIR DWIP, Bangladesh – Thousands of desperate Rohingya are waiting on the Myanmar coast to cross the Naf River to Bangladesh, say refugees who arrived by boat in recent days.
For weeks, rumours have abounded of a potential refugee influx by sea in the southern Bangladesh town of Shah Porir Dwip. Images have surfaced of crowds in makeshift shelters on the shores south of Maungdaw in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state.
UNHCR has been communicating closely with Bangladesh authorities on the ground to ensure safe passage in a systematic and timely way and to step up efforts to rescue people in distress at sea.
"They said any boat caught at sea would be arrested.”
“Our boats could not go out to sea for most of this month,” said a fisherman in Katabunia village on the Bangladesh coast. “Because of the annual breeding season of the hilsa fish, we were banned from fishing until the 22 October. They said any boat caught at sea would be arrested.”
Now that the ban has been lifted, observers are watching closely to see if boat movements will resume with human cargo.
Hala Banu, 70, arrived on a rowboat on Wednesday. “My son and daughter came over a month ago but I was unwilling to come,” she said, squatting under a tree on an island off Shah Porir Dwip. “But after they burnt the market in Buthidaung, I lived in constant fear. I wanted to leave but couldn’t walk, so my nephew carried me for almost a month to reach Bangladesh.”
Mohammed Rafiq, a pharmacist and doctor’s assistant from Maungdaw, also arrived on Wednesday to join the family he sent to safety last month. “I stayed behind to see what would happen. But I got worried when I saw more and more arbitrary arrests. Three weeks ago they burnt down my home and looted my shop of all medicines. That’s when I left.”
"We waited for six days on the shore... We received some rice but there was no water."
The recent boat arrivals consistently say that thousands more people are waiting on Myanmar’s shores in deteriorating conditions. They tell harrowing stories of hunger and drinking seawater that made them sick.
“We waited for six days on the shore with around 2,000 people. We received some rice but there was no water,” said Nadira, who arrived last week from a coastal village called Nakhon Dia. “I saw dead bodies on the shore. They just put them in a bag and didn’t bury them properly.”
Her friend Hazera Khatun, 25, lost her three-year-old son to dehydration. On another Myanmar coast, Dong Khali, Buthidaung native Nurul Islam waited with 5,000 people for 13 days. He said he saw two people die of diarrhoea during this time.
Those who survive this ordeal and can afford the boat fare, risk their lives on overcrowded boats in poor weather conditions, travelling under the cover of night. Scores of Rohingya children, women and men have died making the crossing in the last two months.
UNHCR has appealed to the Bangladesh authorities to ensure safe passage and to step up efforts to rescue people in distress at sea.
On arrival in Bangladesh, the exhausted refugees are taken to a nearby distribution centre where they receive food, medical attention and UNHCR plastic sheets. From there, they are transported to the Kutupalong area where there are existing camps and makeshift sites.
After the long and difficult flight, 70-year-old Hala Banu complains about the aches and pains she feels. But her face lights up when asked about the final leg of her journey: “I am very happy I’ll see my son and daughter in Kutupalong refugee camp soon. I feel safe now.”
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