Memo: Burma Task Force
Date: October 10, 2017
Despite allowing over 500,000 Rohingya refugees to enter from Myanmar/Burma during the month of September, the Government of Bangladesh is no longer allowing any rescue boats to rescue these survivors of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Rohingya are now stranded on Myanmar's beaches, unable to cross into Bangladesh.
These men, women and children are hungry, sick and desperate. They are in danger. Massacres of fleeing Rohingya have been occurring, such as on the beach of Tula To Li on September and in recent days in the area around Rathedaung and Buthidaung. The Myanmar government has also placed landmines along the border with Bangladesh.
Why is there this obstacle to humanitarian access? Starting on 1st October the Bangladesh government placed a ban on fishing boats going out until the 22nd October. It was stated that this ban is for the protection of the spawning of rare fish in the bay. In addition, there is a current clamp down on drug trafficking. However, because of these restrictions, many fishing boats caught ferrying Rohingya over the past week have been burnt, and sailors have been arrested, some of whom have already been sentenced to 6 months in prison.
Although the fishing ban is needed to replenish Bangladesh’s resources, thousands of Rohingya depend on the boats to help them flee; human lives are at stake in this situation. Dehydrated children have been drinking the salty seawater and dying from a lack of fresh water and various illnesses. (See links to video documentation below)
In light of the extreme humanitarian emergency, Burma Task Force therefore requests that the Bangladesh Government lift the twenty-two day ban of fishing boats going to sea. We urge local authorities not to burn local fishing boats or imprison owners for transporting refugees. We understand that government officials have hesitated to call the Rohingya refugees, to minimize their legal obligations to them. However, international norms require that refugees and forced migrants be accommodated.
Instead of causing additional suffering, the government of Bangladesh has an opportunity to control and calm the situation. Allies report that a group of local activists have planned a rescue service, whereby local sailors would be paid on the Bangladesh side to provide rescue boats as a free service to the Rohingya, fully equipped with emergency relief supplies for the journey and for those left behind on the shore. The service would limit the number of people in a boat at any one time and only used experienced sailors in sea-worthy boats. Funds for an initial trial have been raised, life jackets bought and sailors identified.
If implemented this service would prevent Rohingya from falling into the hands of traffickers and would also allow those without sufficient funds to cross. In addition, it would provide fishermen with another source of income. The Bangladesh Government would have full control and knowledge of who crosses the border from the seaside, as this service provides an opportunity to document refugees as well. It would make smuggling less likely as well. However, due to the current restrictions, nobody will go out to make these rescues. Local officials have stated that they need a policy change from the government before they can allow boats to leave. And the crowds gather on the shore, taking desperate measures to get out.
Yesterday another ship carrying Rohingya capsized, killing at least 12, with still others missing. 
Other Rohingya have braved the currents to swim to shore. But if diplomatic efforts could be made to get permission for rescue boats to pass, many of these people now stuck on beaches could be brought to safety, also reducing risk of drowning incidents, and undermining traffickers.
According to our allies in the field, Shaporir Dip in Bangladesh is convenient departure place for boats to reach the Myanmar beach furthest North, next to the Naf River, taking just 15 minutes to cross by speedboat. St Martin's Island is more convenient and safer for the beaches further south, where more people are starting to arrive, taking just 25 minutes to cross by speedboat. Once the Rohingya have arrived on St Martin's Island, they could be processed and transferred safely back to the camps in Bangladesh. There have been no reports of boat owners being arrested at St Martin's for rescuing Rohingya, but all have stated that they will not be going out with the current restrictions in place - unless they are given permission to do so.
Burma Task Force very much appreciates the generosity of the Bangladesh Government in providing emergency relief for such a large influx of refugees. We hope that international and local NGOs will be given access to help the many Rohingya. In addition to food and shelter, there are longer-term needs such as schools and jobs training. Cell phone access should not be restricted. Survivors of rape should be provided with ongoing psychosocial support. Despite planned repatriation to Myanmar, all the human and social needs of refugees should be recognized.
The Prophet said, “The Faithful are to one another like [parts of] a building – each part strengthening the others.” May we build that spiritual and economic strength together.
Videos of Rohingya currently stuck on beaches and newly displaced:
https://twitter.com/ziyabulmdw/status/916608250899865600 [children lying down are poorly from drinking salty water, old man pleading for help]