The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has recorded an alarming rise in the death toll of Rohingya refugees while attempting dangerous sea journeys in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in 2022. UNHCR said Tuesday at least 348 people died or disappeared while fleeing Myanmar or Bangladesh by sea last year, making it one of the deadliest years since 2014.
More than 3,500 desperate Rohingya attempted deadly sea crossings in 39 boats in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal last year, according to the latest data from UNHCR, while 700 people made similar journeys the year before. Some 3,040 Rohingya who undertook the sea journey disembarked in 2022, primarily in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Nearly 45 per cent of those who disembarked were women and children.
In the last two months of 2022, four boats carrying over 450 Rohingya disembarked in Aceh, Indonesia. One boat carrying over 100 Rohingya disembarked in Sri Lanka. One boat is feared to have sunk in early December with approximately 180 individuals on board. Several boats that departed in December remained at sea as of the end of 2022.
Repeated calls by UNHCR to maritime authorities in the region to rescue and disembark people in distress have gone unheeded with many boats adrift for weeks. In the absence of a comprehensive regional response to address these perilous maritime movements, the UN Refugee Agency warns that more people will die on the high seas, under the watch of many coastal States.
Most boats departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the growing sense of desperation amongst Rohingya in those two countries. Those who have disembarked report that they undertook these dangerous sea journeys in an effort to find protection, security, family reunification, and livelihoods in other countries. Among them are victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children, and survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence.
UNHCR said the region and the international community needed to support efforts to address the root causes of displacement in Myanmar. Until these are resolved, refugees will continue to undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety.
In a related development, the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report Tuesday that Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion (APBn) was committing extortion, arbitrary arrests, and harassment of Rohingya refugees already facing violence from criminal gangs and armed groups.
According to HRW, the Armed Police Battalion took over security in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh in July 2020. Refugees and humanitarian workers report that safety has deteriorated under the force’s oversight due to increased police abuses as well as criminal activity. Some refugees allege collusion between officers and armed groups and gangs operating in the camps.
The human rights group urged donor governments to press the Bangladesh authorities to investigate alleged abuses against Rohingya living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, ensure that victims have effective remedies, and develop measures to better protect refugees.
For decades, the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, have faced institutionalized discrimination in Myanmar, such as exclusion from citizenship. In August 2017, the Myanmar government launched a military campaign that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh. The United Nations called the campaign ethnic cleansing; the United States declared the Myanmar government committed genocide against the Rohingya.
More than a million Rohingya refugees are living currently at the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region. An estimated 600,000 Rohingya people, living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, are unable to move freely and are subject to government persecution and violence. Those Rohingya are now caught in the middle of renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, one of several ethnic minority armed groups in Myanmar fighting for autonomy.
Rising despair in Bangladesh’s refugee camps and ongoing violence in Myanmar are driving what the United Nations calls a dramatic increase in ethnic Rohingya risking perilous journeys across the Andaman Sea. In December, the UNHCR issued a public alert to warn of the sharp rise in the number of people, mostly Rohingya, fleeing both Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat. Most head for Malaysia or Indonesia, and many who board the old and overcrowded boats die or are lost along the way.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a United Nations agency mandated to assist and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. The organization is known by its short name the UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR was established on December 14, 1950, by the United Nations General Assembly to provide assistance to refugees resulting from World War II. On January 1, 1951, UNHCR began its work. Each year, the UN Refugee Agency helps millions of refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN agency maintains offices in 134 countries.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an international human rights organization that investigates and reports on abuses of human rights around the world. Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 as “Helsinki Watch,” when it began investigating human rights violations in countries that signed the Helsinki Accords. HRW researchers currently work in the field in 100 some countries. The non-governmental organization (NGO) is headquartered in the United States.
Full text: UNHCR seeks comprehensive regional response to address rise in deadly South-East Asia sea journeys, UNHCR press release, published January 17, 2023
Full text: Protection at Sea in South East Asia - 2022 in Review, UNHCR flash update, released January 17, 2023
Bangladesh: Rampant Police Abuse of Rohingya Refugees, Report by Human Rights Watch, released January 17, 2023
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