The group, consisting mostly of women and children, set out in the Bay of Bengal on a large fishing trawler in mid-February, Bangladesh Coast Guard spokesman Hamidul Islam told CNN. They tried to reach Malaysia but were turned back, he said. The rescue took place on Wednesday or Thursday.
At least 32 people died and their bodies were thrown into the sea, Islam said, citing statements from the rescued refugees. “The deaths were due to several causes. Some died due to lack of food while some due to various illnesses,” he said.
As the boat reached the Malaysian coast, it was turned back by the country’s authorities, Islam said. The overcrowded trawler then traveled to Myanmar and tried to enter twice but was denied entry by the Myanmar navy, according to Islam.
The Malaysian coast guard has not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment on Friday.
CNN also reached out on Friday to Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry and its embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, but has not received a response.
Bangladesh authorities found the trawler in the country’s territorial waters late Wednesday — after spending 58 days adrift at sea — off the coast of the southern district of Cox’s Bazar.
The spokesman said the rescued refugees, most of whom were starving and dehydrated, had been handed to the United Nations Refugee Agency to be quarantined for 14 days due to coronavirus concerns.
“We understand these men, women and children were at sea for nearly two months in harrowing conditions and that many of them are extremely malnourished and dehydrated,” an official with the UN’s refugee agency in Bangladesh said in a statement.
It added that the refugees disembarked from a distressed boat near Teknaf on Wednesday, close to the border with Myanmar.
“We dispatched staff to the site Thursday and are seeking further information from local authorities. Our primary concern is for people’s immediate health and first aid needs. NGOs and partners on the ground have been providing food and other support overnight,” the statement continued.
In early April, Bangladesh imposed lockdown restrictions in Cox’s Bazar district, home to refugee camps housing around 1 million Rohingya refugees, in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
As of April 17, Bangladesh had 2,144 Covid-19 cases with 84 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Human Rights Watch urged Malaysia to allow Rohingya refugees ashore while putting in place systems to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has only intensified the misery of the Rohingya confined in Myanmar and in camps in Bangladesh,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Malaysian government can both protect against the spread of the virus and ensure that those risking their lives at sea are rescued and given a chance to seek asylum.”