The number of Rohingya refugees taking dangerous sea journeys in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia has surged by 360%, the UN has announced after hundreds of refugees were left stranded at the end of last year.
Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps have warned that human smugglers have ramped up operations and are constantly searching for people to fill boats from Myanmar and Bangladesh headed for Malaysia, where people believe they can live more freely.
More than 3,500 Rohingya boarded boats in 2022 compared with 700 the year before, reviving a route between the Bay of Bengal and southeast Asia which was used to move thousands of Rohingya until 2015, when the discovery of mass graves in Thailand forced a crackdown.
Shabia Mantoo, a UNHCR spokesperson, said smugglers are using “false promises and false hope” to lure desperate people, and that regional governments need to act to prevent trafficking and protect any Rohingya who arrive on their shores.
She said: “Calls by UNHCR to maritime authorities in the region to rescue and disembark people in distress have been ignored or have gone unheeded, with many boats adrift for weeks.”
Since 2017, more than a million Rohingya have lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing massacres by the Myanmar military, while those still in Myanmar are frequently arrested when travelling beyond their districts. Several boats were left adrift during the last two months of 2022, with governments not responding to distress calls, leaving Indonesian fishers to rescue 450 people. Another boat with 100 Rohingya was rescued by the Sri Lankan navy.
Zahid Hossain, a Rohingya teacher, said two of his friends were on a boat of 180 people that the UN believes capsized last month. Like him, both spent most of their lives in Bangladesh after their families fled Myanmar in the early 1990s, and were active in volunteering for NGOs.
“They left the camp to seek a better life, and hoping in Malaysia there might be an opportunity for them and their families to build a future for their children. This long-lasting refugee life of 31 years has become an unbearable, poisoned life for them,” he said.
“I found out about their drowning when I heard voice notes sent to us from another boat nearby that reached Indonesia after a bad storm.”
Ali Kabir, an anti-trafficking campaigner who lives near the camps, said the problem was not being taken seriously, and people-smugglers have freely recruited and moved refugees without police action. “There are lot of people being moved, and sometimes when we tell them [the police] they don’t care – they say these people have become a burden.”
Kabir said refugees are often held on boats while ransoms are demanded from their families, adapting a previous strategy of holding people in jungle camps which continued until Thailand discovered mass Rohingya graves in 2015.
“The systems change, the routes change. Now there aren’t mass graves – they die at sea. The sea became the graveyard for them.”
Rohingya people have complained that violent armed gangs are becoming increasingly powerful inside the camps. In a report on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion, assigned to tackle insecurity in the camps, of arbitrary arrests, harassment and extortion.
“Abuses by police in the Cox’s Bazar camps have left Rohingya refugees suffering at the hands of the very forces who are supposed to protect them,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at HRW.