About 180 Rohingya refugees feared dead after boat goes missing

Contact lost for weeks with vessel that left camps in Bangladesh and was crossing Andaman Sea bound for Malaysia

About 180 Rohingya refugees are feared to have died after their boat went missing in the Andaman Sea, making 2022 one of the deadliest years for the refugees trying to flee the camps in Bangladesh.

In a statement on Sunday, the United Nations said it was concerned that a boat carrying the refugees, which had left the camps in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar on 2 December bound for Malaysia, had sunk with no survivors, which would make it one of the worst disasters for Rohingya sea crossings this year.

Another boat carrying nearly 200 Rohingya refugees, which had been adrift for more than a month as they tried to reach Malaysia, washed up in the Indonesian island of Aceh on Monday afternoon.

According to relatives of those on board, at least 20 people had died during the crossing. Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, the brother of one of the women onboard, said he had spoken to his sister and confirmed his five-year-old niece was also alive.

Khan said his sister had relayed the traumatic conditions on board the boat, which had been without food and water for weeks. “She told me that nineteen of them jumped into the sea after they saw another passing boat as they thought that boat would rescue them,” said Khan. “But that boat did not help them, and they were swept away by the strong current. They had no food and drinking water and one of the children died after drinking seawater for two days.”

A separate group of 58 male Rohingya refugees were pulled ashore by locals in Aceh on Sunday. The boat had set sail for Malaysia but had run into trouble, and the rescued refugees were “very sick” and “very weak from hunger and dehydration”, according to the local police chief Rolly Yuiza Away.

Relatives of those onboard the still missing boat said they had lost contact with the boat on 8 December and had little hope left that any were still alive. Mohammad Noman, who lives in the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, described how his sister Ayesha Khatoon had boarded the boat with her two daughters, aged five and three, with a dream to reunite with her husband in Malaysia.

“Since the boat left Bangladesh on December 2, every day we called up the boat two or three times on the boatman’s satellite phone to find out if my sister and her two daughters were all right,” he said. “Since December 8, I have failed to get access to that phone.”

He added: “I know some other people in Cox’s Bazar who made phone calls to the boat every day and stayed in contact with their relatives there. None of them has succeeded to reach the phone after 8 December.”

Kefayatullah, the captain of another boat carrying Rohingya refugees that was rescued by the Sri Lankan coastguard earlier this month after it ran into trouble, said he saw the boat carrying the 180 refugees get caught up in high waves during a stormy night some time in the second week of December.

Kefayatullah said: “It was around 2am when a strong wind began blowing and big waves surfaced on the sea. Jamal’s [the captain] boat began swaying wildly, we could gauge from a flashlight they were pointing at us. After some time, we could not see the flashlight any more. We believe the boat drowned then.”

Noman described the devastation in his family at the realisation that the boat carrying his sister and nieces had probably sunk. “My mother has not eaten food for two days now. She is crying continually and fainting time and again,” he said.

A boat aground on Indra Patra beach in Ladong village, Aceh province, Indonesia that arrived carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees.
A boat aground on Indra Patra beach in Ladong village, Aceh province, Indonesia, which arrived carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees. Photograph: Rahmat Mirza/AP

If the sinking of the boat is confirmed, it would bring the number of Rohingya refugees who have died on sea crossings to Malaysia in 2022 close to 400, one of the worst tolls in recent years, demonstrating the desperation of many of the Rohingya refugees to flee to a new life outside the camps in Bangladesh.

More than a million Rohingya Muslims are now living in the Cox’s Bazar camps, where they fled after violence and persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. But they are living in increasingly prison-like conditions with little opportunity for education or livelihoods. Malaysia is a popular destination for Rohingya, especially for women who often travel there for arranged marriages, and human traffickers have a lucrative business organising regular boat crossings on rickety vessels, despite the high risks and hazards involved and the fact that many Rohingya face detention on their arrival in Malaysia.

In November, two boats carrying a total of 229 Rohingya on the way to Malaysia landed in the Aceh province, according to the UN refugee agency.

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, last week urged governments in south and south-east Asia to act on the calls of distress from the Rohingya refugee boats.

“While many in the world are preparing to enjoy a holiday season and ring in a new year, boats bearing desperate Rohingya men, women and young children are setting off on perilous journeys in unseaworthy vessels,” Andrews said.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman

The GuardianTramp

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