Dhaka, April 24 (IANS) Bangladesh won''t accept any more members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said, amid reports that hundreds of refugees were stranded at sea trying to enter the country.
"We have decided we won''t allow any new Rohingya. This is for the normal time in addition to the COVID-19 situation. We don''t want to accept any people in areas that we want to keep protected," Momen told Efe news on Thursday.
It was reported on Wednesday that two fishing trawlers carrying an estimated 500 Rohingya women, men, and children were in the Bay of Bengal after Malaysian authorities pushed them away.
The two trawlers are headed towards Bangladesh a week after an earlier vessel carrying nearly 400 Rohingya refugees arrived there on April 15.
Momen admitted that they had reports about the two boats but said the government''s priority was the top protect the refugee camp area where tens of thousands Rohingyas are currently living.
"It''s a crowded area. If one infected person comes somehow he will spoil everything," he said.
Momen said ongoing unrest in Myanmar''s Rakhine state between the Arakan Army and Myanmar Army is another reason for Bangladesh to turn back the Rohingya.
"Seemingly a war is going on between Rakhine Army and the Myanmar Army. It a battle zone... Moreover, they (Myanmar) released 800 Rohingyas before the election. They were sent back to Rakhine, so we don''t know who is coming," he said.
The Minister also criticized the European Union and the British government for supporting Myanmar and urged the global leadership and the UN to take the responsibilities of the Rohingya.
"Global leadership, the UN should take care of them. Let them take these Rohingya. How many (more) we would accept? Many leaders say many things. They have no shortage of land. Let them accept the Rohingya. Everyone is being pushed towards us."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has also expressed its concern over the Rohingya stranded at the sea and urged greater coordination and responsibility-sharing between states to address the maritime movements of refugees and asylum-seekers in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
"We are increasingly concerned about reports of failure to disembark vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk, this poses to the men, women, and children on board," Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.
"In the context of the 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."
Authorities in Bangladesh on April 16 rescued 396 Rohingya who were trying to enter the country in a boat from the southern coast, after 58 days at sea.
Most of them had left refugee camps in Bangladesh for Malaysia but they were unable to enter the country or any other place and decided to return, said a Bangladesh coastguard spokesperson.
The coastguard official said at least 28 people died because there was no food or water available, and the bodies were dumped into the sea.
Bangladesh sealed its border with Myanmar in March and put Rohingya refugee camps in the country''s southern district of Cox''s Bazar under complete lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections.
However, the authorities have reported no case from the Rohingya camps.
The only confirmed OVID-19 patient, a 65-year old woman, until now from the Cox''s Bazar region has recovered, according to health officials.
Nearly 738,000 Rohingya refugees are living in camps in Bangladesh since August 25, 2017, following a wave of persecution and violence in Myanmar that the UN has described as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing and possible genocide.
Undocumented Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have been using the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to reach other countries in a quest for a better life.
At least 15 Rohingyas drowned in February when a boat carrying them sank off the coast of Bangladesh while on its way to Malaysia.