Rohingya refugees embarking on perilous sea voyages is nothing new. At this time of year, when the weather becomes calmer, thousands of Rohingya civilians typically set off from the coasts of Myanmar and Bangladesh on treacherous boat journeys across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, in the hope of making a better life in other countries, mostly in Malaysia or Indonesia. However, the past year is said to have been the “deadliest” so far for Rohingya at sea. According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, there was a “dramatic increase” in the number of people attempting to cross the Andaman Sea in 2022 – six times more than the number reported to have made the journey in 2021. According to UNHCR, some 1,920 people, mostly Rohingya, have made the journey by sea this year from Myanmar and Bangladesh and 119 people have been reported dead or missing. The actual number of people embarking on sea voyages is likely much higher as many go unreported when they reach their destinations safely.
Over the last three weeks, four boats carrying Rohingya refugees, including a significant number of women and children, were reported to have been stranded, some of whom were rescued and taken to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia after calls from rights groups and UNHCR, who have repeatedly called on Southeast Asian governments to help rescue the stranded. “This shocking ordeal and tragedy must not continue. These are human beings – men, women and children. We need to see the States in the region help save lives and not let people die,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s Director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a recent statement.
On Christmas day, the U.N. reported that at least 180 Rohingya refugees who were stranded in a boat on the Andaman Sea for weeks are now feared dead after leaving Bangladesh in November. Their boat is believed to have sunk after the U.N.’s calls to the Indian government to lead search and rescue efforts went unheeded. In an interview with Reuters, UNHCR expressed its frustration with the fact that its calls for action are continuously ignored.
The human rights group Amnesty International has also urged Southeast Asian governments to provide care and refuge for the Rohingya stranded at sea. “Seven years after the Andaman Sea crisis, which saw an extensive loss of lives, Rohingya people continue to risk everything in dangerous journeys to escape persecution at home in military-run Myanmar, and the abysmal conditions in Bangladeshi refugee camps,” the group said in a recent statement.
Last week I met a 36-year-old Rohingya man in one of the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, who recently attempted such a dangerous sea voyage. In early November, he embarked on a boat from Teknaf, bound for Malaysia via Thailand, but their boat was unable to make a safe landing in Thailand after the Thai navy pushed it back to sea. The man said that on the return trip to Teknaf, the boat’s supplies of food and water ran out and many subsequently died on board. The Burmese boatmen and traffickers landed the boat in a place in Myanmar where they were given some food and water and put in some houses and said to inform their relatives in Cox’s Bazar camps or elsewhere to pay for the journey despite it not being successful. Some along with him managed to pay, got released and came back to camp last week. Many are still in the hands of the traffickers, unable to pay for their release.
The Burmese traffickers “crammed us inside the boat where we felt extremely suffocated and wouldn’t let us come to the upstairs of the boat, as the navy would have seen and understood that this boat was trafficking people,” the man said. “The situation coming back was so dreadful that the conditions could not be described in any language. If I knew how dreadful it would be on the boat, I would have never tried to leave. I will tell others not to try.”
Human trafficking is a significant issue in many contexts. When it comes to Rohingya refugees, the challenge has been particularly daunting. Most Rohingya people are village people, unaware of human trafficking traps. Back in Myanmar, they have been deprived of basic human rights, including citizenship and freedom of movement, for decades, which has prevented many from accessing education past the primary level. The deprivation that Rohingya experienced in Myanmar led thousands to take sea voyages even before the Myanmar military’s genocidal campaign in 2017.
In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees increasingly feel unwelcome, as they are more often blamed for creating economic and social problems. Meanwhile, their hope has faded amid the mounting adversities they have suffered over the last five years in the overcrowded camps. They have limited opportunities to receive a formal and recognized education, have few work opportunities, are dependent on aid, and are increasingly threatened by violence and crime carried out by criminal groups in the camps. For these reasons, they are now more desperate than ever to leave camps and make better lives elsewhere. Hence, they are the perfect prey for human traffickers and smugglers trying to make money by exploiting others.
In my experience, many Rohingya refugees – displaced and stuck in the camps and largely hopeless about their future – are willing to take the risks of being abused and tortured at the hands of traffickers and of dying at sea, even after learning about the nature of the voyages. Some put their faith in luck or think they have had better do or die. Some also get lured by the dreams of a better life overseas presented by traffickers, while others, including children, are forced to take the voyages against their will.
But when these voyages fail to reach their destinations, there are reports of traffickers torturing refugees adrift at sea and demanding money for their release. On the boat, they face the threat of starvation and death and if they cannot make it to their destinations, they may be intercepted by traffickers who may subject them to torture, forced labor, sexual exploitation, and forced marriages.
Five years have passed since Rohingya refugees were brutally forced to leave their homes in Myanmar by the military and local proxies, an assault that the United States government declared a genocide last year. Since then, Rohingya have been living in the sprawling makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar, fully dependent on aid and with no future for their children in sight. So, there is no mystery behind why they are increasingly becoming desperate to take the life-threatening risks associated with the boat journeys, even after knowing the horrific experiences of many survivors. It is very simple. It all stems from the lack of a durable solution to their crisis.
The international community continues to put pressure on Myanmar to take responsibility for ending its current political crisis following the February 2021 military coup, and to pave the way for a safe and dignified return of Rohingyas to their homes, as demanded by the historic U.N. Security Council resolution of December 22. And over the last few years, Bangladesh has continuously sought help from regional powers to negotiate refugees’ return to Myanmar. However, there have been no substantial efforts or improvements to this end, nor are there any in sight. Rather, those responsible for the atrocities in 2017 are being aided by countries that are profiting from Myanmar’s continued war, mainly in the form of weapons sales and energy exports. This, in addition to the conflict now engulfing Myanmar, has made the prospects for a Rohingya return less and less likely.
Over the last five years, the international media has become less and less interested in the Rohingya, as other crises such as those in Ukraine and Afghanistan steal the deadlines. Nonetheless, the recent news of boats carrying Rohingya adrift at sea has been widely covered. And thousands of reports, op-eds, and commentaries have been written in international, regional, and local newspapers and online journals, on the history of their persecution and abuse in Myanmar and their challenges as refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps. So, while these boat journeys are not new, the frequency and the number of Rohingya fleeing the country they once sought safety from should be alarming – not only to the region but also to the world. All of these include calls for the international community to stop human traffickers from profiting from the miseries of Rohingya refugees by resolving their crisis.