Rohingya refugees
Rohingya refugees react after being rescued in Teknaf near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Thursday, April 16, 2020. Bangladesh's coast guard has rescued 382 starving Rohingya refugees who had been drifting at sea for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, officials said Thursday. Image Credit: AP

Teknaf: Thirty-two Rohingya are believed to have died on an overcrowded boat stranded in the Bay of Bengal for nearly two months, an official said Thursday after hundreds of “starving” people were rescued from the vessel.

The boat had tried to reach Thailand and Malaysia, some of the nearly 400 people rescued from the trawler told the Bangladesh coastguard.

The bodies of the 32 dead were thrown overboard, Lieutenant Shah Zia Rahman told AFP, citing survivor accounts.

Nearly 250 women and children were among those rescued late Wednesday off Bangladesh’s southeastern coast.

“They were starving,” Rahman said.

Nearly a million Rohingya live in squalid camps near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar after fleeing a military offensive in 2017. Thousands try every year to reach other countries on crowded rickety boats.

Rohingya refugees
Bangladesh's security personnel attend to a Rohingya refugee following their arrival by a boat in Teknaf on 16 April 2020. Thirty-two Rohingya died on an overcrowded fishing trawler stranded in the Bay of Bengal for nearly two months, officials said April 16 after hundreds of "starving" people were rescued from the vessel. Image Credit: AFP

A Rohingya community leader in Bangladesh, who declined to be named, said there were 482 people on board the boat.

That suggests more than 50 people may have perished.

“It made several attempts to land in Malaysia but was turned back. We think several boats carrying Rohingya are still at sea,” he said.

“Their bodies have become skeletal. Some grew beards on the boat,” local police chief Masud Hossain told AFP.

Coastguard Lieutenant Commander Hamidul Islam said some of the survivors reported the vessel was denied entry by authorities in Thailand and Malaysia.

Only a few of those rescued had refugee cards from the camps and many had boarded in Arakan in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Islam said.

They have been detained for illegally entering Bangladesh territory, he added.

Bangladesh media reports quoted one of those on board as saying the boat was denied entry by Malaysia because of stricter controls due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We failed to anchor in Malaysian coast despite repeated attempts,” Mohammad Jubayer told the news portal.

Admiral Mohamad Zubil Mat Som, director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, declined to comment on the reports. But he said the maritime border was being strengthened.

The UN’s refugee agency said it had dispatched staff to the site to help the “extremely malnourished and dehydrated” people.

“UNHCR is offering to assist the Government to move these people to quarantine facilities and to receive medical attention for those who require it,” Louise Donovan said in a statement.

“Media reports that the group may be infected with the COVID-19 virus have not been substantiated,” she added.

Since late last year, Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies have picked up some 1,000 Rohingya from coastal villages and boats as they waited to board vessels bound for Malaysia.