Bangladesh is trying to stop Rohingya refugees risking their lives in boats to Southeast Asia, a government official said, amid fears that this year could be one of the most deadly in years for the persecuted Muslims from Myanmar seeking new lives.
A boat washed ashore in Indonesia's Aceh province on Monday carrying 174 Rohingya, most of them dehydrated, exhausted and in urgent need of medical care after weeks at sea, disaster agency officials said.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Monday 2022 could be one of the deadliest years at sea in almost a decade for the Rohingya as a growing number flee desperate conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh, despite attempts to stop them.
"We're doing everything possible to stop them from taking the dangerous voyages," Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Mizanur Rahman told Reuters late on Monday.
"We're going door to door and holding talks with community leaders in the camps to explain the dangers. Our law enforcement agencies, the navy and the coastguard are on alert. They are arresting those who are involved in human trafficking."
Nearly 1 million Rohingya from Myanmar are living in Bangladesh, most in refugee camps including many who fled from their homes in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2017 to escape a military crackdown.
But with prospects in the camps bleak and little hope of going home, many are driven to seek new lives further afield.
Some 2,400 Rohingya have made or tried to make the sea journey to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia this year, the UNHCR estimates, which rights groups said was a five-fold increase from the previous year.
Several boats packed with people have landed in Indonesia since November and Sri Lanka's navy rescued one. Thai fishermen found six Rohingya drifting at sea this week clinging to a water tank.
It is not clear what is driving the exodus but some activists believe the lifting of COVID restrictions around Southeast Asia, a favoured destination for the Rohingya, could be a factor.
Rahman said not all Rohingya who put to sea do so from Bangladesh.
"Their situation is far worse in Myanmar," he said, while adding that the refugees were losing hope of going home despite five years of talk about a repatriation programme.
Most Rohingya in Myanmar are regarded as illegal immigrants from South Asia and are denied citizenship. Rohingya in Bangladesh say they want to go home but only if they are guaranteed citizenship.
"Life in the camp is not easy, people are desperate," said Mohammed Imran, a former camp leader who managed to travel to Malaysia but returned to Bangladesh to be with his two sisters.
His parents live in Saudi Arabia.
Dil Mohammed, a Rohingya leader in Bangladesh, said many people were ready to risk their lives in traffickers' boats.
"People are getting frustrated with the refugee life and there's no hope of going home," he said. "Many of them end up dying but no one cares."
Mohammed said he and his fellow Rohingya had been abandoned by the international community that had not stood up to Myanmar's generals.
"The international community has failed to put pressure on Myanmar," he said.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Editing by Robert Birsel)