Hundreds of refugees adrift at sea between Bangladesh and Myanmar
During the week of December 5, Rohingya refugees sent messages of distress from boats adrift at sea. Their families have shared videos of the scenes, while human rights activists have called on neighbouring countries like Thailand to take action.
About 200 mostly Muslim Rohingya have been drifting for several days in the Andaman Sea after their boat broke down, according to relatives of the passengers.
"The boat's engine has broken down, so they are drifting without sufficient food and water. Their relatives in Bangladesh have told Human Rights Watch that between 8 and 16 refugees have already died," the Asian branch of the NGO told us. The boat reportedly left the coast of Bangladesh from Teknaf to Malaysia on November 25.
The mostly Muslim Rohingya have long suffered discrimination and persecution in Myanmar and more than a million people have fled since a brutal military crackdown in 2017. The majority of Rohingya have gone to neighbouring Bangladesh or to other Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch have stressed the urgency of the situation and have repeatedly called on the Thai government and other neighbouring states to help these refugees.
But for the moment, no country has taken action. The news agency Reuters spoke to a Thai naval officer who said that the boat was in Indian waters, which the Indian navy denies.
During the first week of December 2022, passengers on at least two other boats carrying Rohingya refugees also sent messages of distress to their relatives.
When contacted, a UNHCR representative in Bangkok explained that it was more difficult to get reliable information on the location and situation of these two other boats.
On December 7, at least one of these boats was rescued by a Vietnamese oil service vessel. It was not the one whose location was shared and whose family members spoke to Human Rights Watch. It is still at sea, the UNHCR representative told the France Observers team on Friday, December 9.
According to phone conversation with the people on the boat carrying 160 Rohingya and a Rohingya, the boat is still Floating and urgently needs to be rescued. Datuk Seri @anwaribrahim, please be requested for a coordinated rescue efforts. pic.twitter.com/0GnKXUH68h— Aung Kyaw Moe (@akmoe2) December 7, 2022
An adviser to the Myanmar government-in-exile's human rights ministry, Aung Kyaw Moe, told us that he has received many distressing messages from the extended families of the Rohingya on the boat.
He said that two boats left on November 18 and the third on November 25. The latter is the only one to have a satellite phone on board, which is why it was able to send its location, and why there is more information about its situation.
The Andaman Sea: a new and dangerous migration route
An increasing number of Rohingya refugees are venturing across the Andaman Sea, according to a recent UNHCR report published on December 2. From January to November 2022, 1,920 people, mostly Rohingya, travelled by sea from Burma and Bangladesh, compared to only 287 in 2021. In 2022 so far, 119 people have died during this crossing.
Bangladesh is home to almost one million Rohingya refugees, the majority of whom live in huge refugee camps in Cox's Bazar and Teknaf, where the boats are believed to have departed from.
'They choose to go to sea because it's better than the alternatives: their current situation, or going back to Myanmar'
According to Aung Kyaw Moe, the conditions in the refugee camps encourage people to flee despite the dangers:
Many Rohingyas leave Bangladesh, where conditions are very difficult, but they don't know when they can return to Myanmar, where they risk being arrested. Many young people who grew up in the camps just want to start living, so they take a gamble on their lives and go to sea, despite the uncertainty. They do it because it's better than their current situation or going back to Myanmar.
Today in the afternoon sea the refugee say the Vietnam navy rescued 157 refugees from India and Myanmar sea crossing point but Navy handed them over to Myanmar Navy. But still two more stranded boats have been floating in #Andamaa sea without foods and water, India sea. pic.twitter.com/7JzEYQOT4V— Rohingya Journalist (@MediaRohingya) December 8, 2022
On December 8, these 154 refugees were handed over to the Myanmar authorities. According to Aung Kyaw Moe, they risk being locked up without a trial: "Rohingyas who have fled and are arrested in Burma are automatically put in prison, there is no trial, no lawyer".
MYANMAR:— Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) December 8, 2022
REPORTS THAT VIETNAM(?) HAS HANDED THE RESCUED 158 #Rohingya to the #Myanmar navy.
Video shows Rohingya (in distress and crying) on board craft with Myanmar junta navy personnel. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/V6WPu7pMwY