Sheltering Rohingyas Practical Experience Of Apprehending Them At Deep Sea

13 November 2020

Captain AFM Ahsan Uddin :
"Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink"- wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his famous poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. As a sailor, we always feel this and thus our relation with the sea becomes inseparable in our life. Sometimes we forget the presence of air around us though we inhale it every second, likewise, at times we tend to realize our engrossed relation with the sea. However, the same feeling was suddenly popped up when we saw a forlorn mechanized boat at deep sea for months carrying huge people including women and children. They even didn't have water to drink though they were surrounded by the sea.
There was news regarding few hundreds of Rohingya at deep sea in mechanized boats and seeking refuge to Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand since April 2020. As Bangladesh Navy had been quite vigilant since long and carrying out patrol round the clock to prevent illegal migration of Rohingyas from Myanmar, we, the sailors at sea, were alert. Our mission was two. First, to prevent Rohingya influx, and second, to apprehend or rescue them if they are stranded.
We had been at sea since 05 April 2020 for various operations. Looking for Rohingyas added new dimension to our operations. I had briefed my Operations Team regarding the importance of the mission mentioning UN concern about these Rohingyas. So, we had devised our plan of action under the guidance of Commander BN Fleet. There were 5 BN ships that started patrolling in their designated sectors at sea since April 2020. Our ship, BNS SOMUDRA AVIJAN, was deployed in the southern most sector. We were vigilant round the clock with constant watch on radar and other surveillance equipment.
On 07 May midnight at about 0030 hrs, I got a call from the duty officer who informed me that a suspicious contact was found at about 5 nautical miles (9.2 km) for from our ship. I rushed to the bridge (from where we run a ship) and observed that among other contacts, a slightly different one, likely to be a big mechanized boat, was heading towards Bangladesh. At that time, we were 25 nm (46.3 km) SW of St Martin's Island. Seeing the contact, I asked duty officer to chase the boat and get closer. Initially the boat was trying to flee towards Myanmar, but with our ship's speed, they couldn't get away. Getting closer, I looked through the binocular and confirmed the presence of huge people including women and children. Finally, after 1 hour of chasing, we could apprehend the boat and confirmed the presence of approx 287 Rohingyas who, after being refused to entry, were driven away by their law enforcing agencies from Malaysian waters.
As we learned, these Rohingyas were at sea for about 2-3 months. They went to seek refuge in Malaysia. What we came to know about their experience was horrifying. They faced very rough sea, many of them couldn't eat anything for days. They had even no foods and water to drink for last couple of days, and dying of weakness, few of them were thrown overboard. We were listening to their pathetic and dreadful stories while we had been giving them food, water, juice and first aid. I was so dumbstruck to see two of them who were even fighting for a single 'Oral Saline" sachet! Alas! These are human being, the best creation of the Almighty! We had given whatever we could to feed them and to bring back their strength. We even cooked food for these 287 people. Finally, we handed over them to our concerned authority for their safe shelter.
According to UNICEF and OCHA, the Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Such persecution has forced Rohingya women, girls, boys and men into Bangladesh for many years, with significant spikes following violent attacks in 1978, 1991-1992, and again in 2016. Yet it was August 2017 that triggered by far the largest and fastest refugee influx (around 700,000) into Bangladesh. Presently, around 919,000 Rohingya refugees live in southern Bangladesh, most of them in the vast and teeming camps and settlements that have sprung up in Cox's Bazar district, close to the border with Myanmar. A small portion lives in the neighbouring host communities of Teknaf and Ukhia. They have nothing and therefore need everything. And Bangladesh, being a very small country with huge populace and resource constrain, has yet shown sympathy with courage to provide shelter to a total number of refugee more than the total people of country like Bhutan, Fiji, Reunion or Maldives.
UNHCR recognized that Bangladesh government has responded generously throughout this Rohingya crisis. Local Bangladeshi villagers have also taken the new arrivals as a part of philanthropy and human kind. They spared no effort to help, straining their existing limited resources. Our Honourable Prime Minister, the 'Mother of Humanity', Sheikh Hasina has again shown a rare, bold, and unprecedented act of kindheartedness by allowing them to stay and giving them their basic needs. Thus, the concerned authorities and people of Bangladesh extended unstinting support to these Rohingyas.
Providing shelter to near about 1 million Rohingya refugees is a unique case compared to other refugee crisis around the world. The comparison between top 10 largest refugee hosting countries justifies the courageous act of Bangladesh. Being the top ranked in population and its density, and lower ranked in area of landmass and GDP, Bangladesh could dare to host such a huge number of refugees. This is undoubtedly rare, unparallel and a true symbol of humanity.
Rohingyas are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar. According to 'Burma Gazetteer (1917) by RB Smart, the Rohingya community originated during the early 9th century in Arakan (of Myanmar) after a ship carrying Muslims from Arab was wrecked. Later, Muslim soldiers, traders, fortune-seekers, slaves etc from Bengal and other regions of India started to live permanently in Arakan in significant numbers. Their many generations are already settled there. Though there had been a number of tortures, repressions, atrocities and massacres including genocides against the Rohingya people occurred several times. But after British period, again this Rohingya refugee crisis began in 60s, late 70s and it became riotous recently. Now we are quite busy with tackling the crisis, whereas, we should deeply look into the origin of the problem. It's important to note why the refugees are fleeing their homes and residences in Myanmar. One should think judiciously, how much logical is the sudden extermination of few hundreds of thousands of inhabitants from their homeland?
As a sailor, we will always be at sea to guard our maritime front and protect our beloved nation. We will remain there round the clock patrolling relentlessly to assist the seafarers, prevent illegal acts and apprehend culprits. But we hope not to apprehend such illegal migrants like Rohingya anymore. We want nations and international communities to work hand in hand, look for the root causes of any crisis and help prevent such atrocities in future as happened with the helpless Rohingyas.  

(Captain AFM Ahsan Uddin, NPP, BCGMS, psc, BN is the Commanding Officer of BNS SOMUDRA AVIJAN. E-mail:

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