COX S BAZAR (dna) – Rohingya refugee Shahab Uddin thought the wooden trawler he boarded in February would be his ticket out of a camp in Bangladesh to a better life in Malaysia.
Instead, the voyage nearly killed him. The 20-year-old was among almost 400 survivors pulled from the water, starving, emaciated and traumatized after the boat failed to reach Malaysia and spent weeks adrift before returning to Bangladesh in mid-April.
Hundreds more refugees are stranded on at least two other trawlers, rights groups say, as Southeast Asian governments tighten borders to keep out the new coronavirus, threatening a repeat of a 2015 boat crisis when hundreds of people died.
The United Nations has implored authorities to let the boats land, but anti-refugee sentiment is surging in Malaysia and governments say borders are sealed to keep out the coronavirus.
In interviews with Reuters, seven survivors from the rescued boat recalled two harrowing months.
Estimates of the number of people who died on the boat ranged from several dozen to more than 100 – nobody kept count – but their accounts were consistent.
The survivors described hundreds of men, women, and children crammed on the boat, unable to move, squatting in rain and scorching sun until, as food and water ran out, they began to die of starvation, thirst, and beatings, their bodies tossed overboard. Some wept as they spoke.
“I thought I would not come back home alive,” said Uddin. “I missed my family, especially my parents.”
The group Fortify Rights said in a statement last week the operators of the boat “held their victims in conditions similar to slavery for the purposes of exploitation”.
Reuters was unable to identify or contact the crew for comment.
Amnesty International urged governments to protect stranded Rohingya and allow them to land. It estimated 800 more people were at sea. Several dozen people from one boat landed on the south coast of Bangladesh on Saturday.
Malaysia defends its policy of turning boats away. Authorities have acted lawfully to defend the country’s sovereignty and are ready to do so again, its minister for internal affairs said in a statement on Thursday.
More than a million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority from Myanmar, live in camps in southern Bangladesh after fleeing from largely Buddhist Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Most fled an army crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations says was carried out with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies genocide and says it was responding to insurgent attacks.