The coronavirus pandemic has affected all the regions of the world and disrupted the daily lives of billions of people. Alongside our own lives, there are also those of the most vulnerable communities, such as refugees and internally displaced people, including those who have desperately tried to escape instability and conflict.

Due to the adoption of containment measures for the spread of the virus, these people are now facing further difficulties, such as the closure of borders, the interruption of search and rescue operations, and the impossibility of maintaining social distancing inside overcrowded camps.

Among the world’s most vulnerable refugee communities, the Rohingya have a special place. Since we started our operations in Bangladesh, we have witnessed the desperate conditions facing those crossing from Myanmar to its surrounding states, and the violence this population suffers within the country that does not recognise its identity.

From October 2015 to May 2016, MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) was the first NGO to conduct a monitoring mission in the Andaman Sea, a route on which a large number of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar lost their lives, as a result of the dangerous conditions of the crossing and the lack of food and water after weeks at sea waiting for a port to disembark.

During this mission, we committed ourselves to establishing close contact with partners in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, India and Indonesia with the aim of putting into practice information sharing related to the SAR area of southeast Asia.

In April 2018, following the escalation of violence perpetrated on the Rohingya in the summer of 2017, MOAS launched a second monitoring and observation mission with the Phoenix ship. During the mission we covered more than 2,674 nautical miles and five different national SAR areas, increasing our knowledge about the situation of the Andaman Sea.

Since the first mission, MOAS has made numerous appeals to the international community, including international governmental and non-governmental organisations, to establish an independent maritime mission in the Andaman Sea, and to start a dialogue between the countries of the region, in order for Myanmar to recognise the Rohingya’s right to citizenship, and to put an end to the inhumane violence committed against Rohingya children, women and men.

Among the world’s most vulnerable refugee communities, the Rohingya have a special place

Among the 135 ethnic groups present in Myanmar, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship, and this statelessness makes them particularly vulnerable. This is a situation that has persisted and worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic, despite the International Court of Justice’s decision in January which ordered Myanmar to take action to prevent the Rohingya from suffering violence.

In the last month there has been an increase in the exodus of the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh. In the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, numerous boats are transporting refugees in desperate conditions. While Malaysia, Thailand, India and Indonesia close their ports and stop rescue operations, on Rohingya boats, which remain stuck offshore for weeks, there is a risk of starvation due to the limited stocks of water and food, recalling the dramatic memories of the 2015 ghost boats.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, after carrying out a series of rescues in international waters, has stated that those Rohingya who have been rescued will not be hosted in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar, but will instead be transferred to Bhashan Char in Noakhali. The local press has since confirmed that almost 300 refugees have been taken to Bhashan Char.

According to a project deve­lop­ed by the Bangladesh Navy, the island of Bhashan Char has been proposed to become a location to host 100,000 Rohingya refugees from sea rescue missions and camps. However, there are concerns that the island, to which the United Nations and international organisations have no access, would in fact become a form of forced isolation, as there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the assurance of the minimum rights, which are currently protected for those in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar, for those residing on the small island.

UNHCR, IOM and UNODC have launched an appeal for all ASEAN countries to unite to maintain their commitments under the Bali Declaration, and to ensure the respect of fundamental rights and international conventions, despite the difficulties that have arisen with the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MOAS is reiterating the need for regional collaboration, once the coronavirus crisis has diminished, and is emphasising the need to continue to work towards the only real possible solution for this extraordinary situation: Myanmar’s recognition of the Rohingya nationality and their consequent return, as well as the assurance of continuous assistance from international organisations.

Regina Catrambone is co-founder and director of MOAS

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