< More Rohingya Refugees Fleeing Bangladesh by Boat This Year
By Anna Matteo
05 December 2023

The number of Rohingya taking risky boat trips to flee refugee camps in Bangladesh is rising even higher than last year. Human rights groups and aid agencies told VOA that those numbers could keep rising.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, said in a statement that a boat with 150 Rohingya on board landed in western Indonesia Saturday morning. Amnesty International's Indonesia office told VOA it had confirmed the landing as well.

That brings the total number of Rohingya fleeing across the Andaman Sea by boat to 3,722 so far this year, says the UNHCR.

Children of newly-arrived Rohingya refugees are seen at a beach on Sabang island, Aceh province, Indonesia, on December 2, 2023. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP)
Children of newly-arrived Rohingya refugees are seen at a beach on Sabang island, Aceh province, Indonesia, on December 2, 2023. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP)

In its statement, the refugee agency said it had also received several reports of two more boats with broken engines stranded in the Andaman Sea. Those boats hold 400 or more people. The agency issued an urgent search and rescue call to countries in the area.

In 2022, the UNHCR counted 3,705 Rohingya who tried to flee. That was the most for any year since 2015.

December is a time when the waters are somewhat calm. And it is the time when most Rohingya try to leave. UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch noted, "We can't predict what is going to happen in December, but if we look at last year, 2022, the last three months were the ... busiest."

More to come

The Rohingya is a mostly Muslim minority from Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Nearly 1 million currently live in several large refugee camps in eastern Bangladesh.

Most arrived in 2017, fleeing what the U.N. calls a campaign of "genocidal intent" by the Myanmar military.

Now, some try to flee by boat to Malaysia or Indonesia, both Muslim-majority countries. Several hundred have died attempting to flee on old and overcrowded boats. Entire boats filled with refugees are believed to have been lost at sea.

Chris Lewa is with the Arakan Project, a group that closely follows the issue. She told VOA, "I believe there will be a lot more people on the way, but to [give] a figure ... is impossible."

Reasons for the increase

Aid groups and the Rohingya blame worsening conditions in the camps in Bangladesh for the increase in attempts to flee. The refugees complain of rising gang violence, a lack of jobs and schools, and little food.

The U.N. World Food Program is the main source of food aid for the refugees. In June, it reduced the amount of monthly food aid, for the second time, to $8 per person per month. The agency blamed lack of donor support for the cuts.

Additionally, the Rohingya are losing hope that they will be able to return safely to Myanmar where they are mostly denied citizenship.

Mohammed Rezuwan Khan is a Rohingya refugee. He said, "...All these things [are] driving the people to take the dangerous sea journeys." Khan said his sister and niece knew the risks but still fled by boat last year. They made it to Indonesia.

In years past, the boats carried mostly single men and women. But the UNHCR says more families with children are now traveling together. This year nearly a third of those making the dangerous trip are children.

Losing their lives

UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch says Indonesia is the only country willing to take in the Rohingya. A 2016 presidential decision in Indonesia ordered officials to aid any boats at risk in the country's waters and to let them land.

However, that may be starting to change. Last month, a boat that reached Aceh in Indonesia was reportedly pushed back out to sea twice. On the third try, it made it to land.

A representative of Amnesty International blamed this on the national government's failure to assist local officials in their efforts to help the refugees.

Should Indonesia stop helping, experts say more Rohingya will die when they cannot reach land at all. The UNHCR counted 348 dead or missing among those who set out in 2022 and 225 so far this year.

Baloch said, "We saw last year the consequences of not having a safe port or a safe place to disembark. These people risk losing their lives."

I'm Anna Matteo.

Zsombor Peter reported on this story in Bangkok, Thailand for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

stranded – v. left without the means to move from somewhere.

urgent – adj. calling for immediate attention

predict – v. to declare in advance : foretell on the basis of observation, experience, or reasoning

genocidal – adj. the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group

intent – n. a usually clearly formulated or planned

figure – n. a number symbol

gang – n. a group of persons associated together to do something illegal

donor – n. one that give money or other resources

journey – n. an act or instance of traveling from one place to another

consequence – n. something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions

disembark – v. to remove to shore from a ship

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