In early December, a video showing Rohingyas on an overcrowded makeshift boat made the rounds on social networks. It was drifting in the Andaman Sea, between Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand, but no country came to its rescue – despite appeals from NGOs and the UN. Many boats meet the same fate, and every year Rohingyas die at sea in the hope of reaching Indonesia or Malaysia.
The Rohingyas are persecuted in their country of origin, Myanmar. Since the early 1990s, nearly one million Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, a country with a Muslim majority.
But more and more Rohingya are deciding to flee Bangladesh as well. Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have taken to the sea to escape the huge camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. They hoped to reach Malaysia to join their families or start a new life, but several boats have been damaged on their journeys.
Despite the appeals of NGOs and the United Nations, the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and India have not intervened to take in the boats or their passengers.
Two boats were finally picked up by fishermen in Indonesia at the end of December, one of which, according to NGOs, had been drifting for several weeks without an engine. Another boat was recovered by the Sri Lankan Navy. A fourth was rescued by a Vietnamese oil tanker, but the passengers were eventually handed over to the Burmese navy and put in jail, including women and children. Another boat disappeared altogether after sending an SOS.
Though the number is difficult to verify, NGOs estimate that up to 400 Rohingyas died at sea in 2022.
Chris Lewa, director of the NGO Arakan Project, which closely follows the trajectory of these boats, says that more and more Rohingyas are deciding to leave Cox's Bazar.
The main two reasons are:
a) the lack of hope for any repatriation to Myanmar in the foreseeable future due to the military coup (the perpetrators of the atrocities that led to their flight in 2012 are now in control in Myanmar) and the renewed armed conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military (the Rohingya are caught in the middle even though they are not party to this conflict)
b) deterioration of the already precarious and overcrowded conditions in Bangladesh refugee camps and mounting insecurity (armed gangs, drug trafficking, killings and abductions for ransom in the camps) coupled with a security response by Bangladesh preventing the Rohingya to move outside the camps, building barbed wire fences, police destruction of shops, forcible closure of schools, police harassment, etc.)
In this episode of The Observers, we spoke to a Rohingya refugee from Cox's Bazar who explained that heightened insecurity and appalling conditions in the refugee camps have pushed a number of people to take the risk at sea in order to reach another country.