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Rohingya refugees forced to risk death at sea

5 February 20240 comments

More than 560 Rohingya refugees died or were missing after attempting dangerous boat crossings to countries in South East Asia in 2023, according to a new report from the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

The figure is the highest number of deaths since 2014 among the predominantly Muslim ethnic group, who fled Myanmar to escape persecution and violence.

Rohingya refugees have increasingly been embarking on journeys across the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, now mainly escaping crowded and dangerous refugee camps in Bangladesh.

This area of ocean has become one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world, with around 12 per cent of people attempting to cross it dying.

The death rate among migrants in the Central Mediterranean was just one per cent in 2023, although 2,145 was the actual number of people reported dead or missing.

The majority of Rohingya crossing were children and women, with common reports of abuse and gender-based violence.

UNHCR said the total of 569 Rohingya death last year resulted from nearly 4,500 people taking to boats.

“Estimates show one Rohingya was reported to have died or gone missing for every eight people attempting the journey in 2023,” said UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh in a statement.

“This makes the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world.”

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh after a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military in 2017 that is the subject of a genocide case before the International Court of Justice.

In a single deadly incident in November 2023, it is feared that some 200 Rohingya lost their lives when their boat was reported to have sunk in the Andaman Sea, the report reveals.

“These figures provide a chilling reminder that failure to act to save people in distress results in deaths. More and more desperate people are dying under the watch of numerous coastal States in the absence of timely rescue and disembarkation to the nearest place of safety,” UNHCR said in a statement.  

“UNHCR calls on regional coastal authorities to take urgent action to prevent future tragedies. Saving lives and rescuing those in distress at sea is a humanitarian imperative and a longstanding duty under international maritime law.”

Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, where the military seized power in a coup nearly three years ago, are mainly confined to camps in their native Rakhine State with strict curbs on their movement and daily lives.

And while people in Indonesia and Malaysia have previously welcomed refugees arriving in boats, recently villagers and the military have pushed boast back out to sea and told their passengers they could not come ashore despite the dreadful conditions on board.

In December, a mob of students stormed a community hall in Banda Aceh where dozens of Rohingya had been given shelter, demanding that the group be deported.

There are fears boat journeys will spike in coming months after more than 7,000 Rohingya refugees were homeless after a fire destroyed about 800 shelters in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, where nearly a million Rohingya refugees live after fleeing Burma.

Read more here: UNHCR: Urgent action needed to address dramatic rise in Rohingya deaths at sea | UNHCR UK