The UN says there was an “alarming” rise in the number of Rohingya refugees lost at sea fleeing their Myanmar homeland or Bangladesh last year, warning more would die without concerted action.
More than 3,500 Rohingya attempted sea crossings in 2022, representing a huge increase on the year before, when some 700 people made similar journeys, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said on Tuesday.
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“UNHCR has recorded an alarming rise in the death toll. At least 348 individuals died or went missing at sea in 2022, making it one of the deadliest years since 2014,” spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told reporters in Geneva.
She said that 3,040 Rohingya who attempted to flee by sea disembarked last year, mostly in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Nearly 45 percent of those who did so were women and children.
“Most boats departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the growing sense of desperation amongst Rohingya in those two countries,” Mantoo said.
“Those who have disembarked report that they undertook these dangerous sea journeys in an effort to find protection, security, family reunification, and livelihoods in other countries,” she said.
“Among them are victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children, and survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence.”
Several boats that left in December were still at sea as of the end of the year, Mantoo said, adding that one boat was feared to have sunk with about 180 people on board.
‘A crisis of solidarity’
A military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017 sent hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh with harrowing stories of murder, rape and arson.
Myanmar is on trial for genocide at the UN’s top court over the mass exodus.
Mantoo said calls by UNHCR to maritime authorities to rescue and disembark people in distress have gone unheeded, with many boats adrift for weeks.
“The current crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is a crisis of solidarity,” she said.
UNHCR has called for a full regional response, addressing human trafficking, search and rescue efforts and support in countries where Rohingya refugees disembark.
It also wanted to see efforts to address the root causes of why Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar.
Mantoo said that without such a response, “more people will die on the high seas” as people undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety.
The UNHCR statement came as Human Rights Watch alleged that Rohingya refugees have been suffering widespread abuse at the hands of an elite Bangladesh police unit.
The Armed Police Battalion is engaged in the rampant extortion, harassment and wrongful arrests of Rohingya refugees it has been tasked with protecting, the US-based rights group said on Tuesday.
The unit has been operating in camps housing nearly one million Rohingya since 2020.