For the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, 2022 will be the deadliest year at sea since the possible sinking of a boat with 180 refugees on board, the UN agency said on Monday.
Many have tried to flee desperate conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh, home to nearly 1 million Rohingya from Myanmar, including tens of thousands who fled their country after a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, most Rohingyas are denied citizenship and treated as illegal immigrants from South Asia.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said over the weekend that it feared a ship that left Bangladesh in late November had gone missing at sea, with all 180 people on board presumed dead.
The UNHCR said the vessel, which was not seaworthy, may have begun to crack in early December before losing contact. The agency said it was not clear where the boat started from, but three Rohingya men, including one who fears he has lost four members of his family, said it started from Bangladesh.
Already this year, about 200 Rohingyas are considered dead or missing at sea. “We hope, against all odds, that the 180 missing are still alive out there,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.
UNHCR estimates that around 900 Rohingyas died or went missing in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal in 2013 and more than 700 in 2014.
“One of the worst years for the dead and missing since 2013 and 2014,” Baloch said of 2022, adding that the number of people trying to escape has returned to levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trends show the numbers going back to 2020, with over 2,400 undertaking dangerous sea crossings, with over 200 dead or missing.”
Human rights organizations estimate that the number of Rohingyas leaving Bangladesh by boat has more than quintupled this year compared to last year.
Baloch said it was unclear exactly where the 180-passenger boat went missing, or whether the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in Southeast Asia, the Rohingya’s favorite destination, has caused an influx of people.
Sayedur Rahman, 38, who fled to Malaysia in 2012 from Myanmar, said his wife, two sons, aged 17 and 13, and a daughter, aged 12, were missing.
“In 2017, my family came to Bangladesh to save their lives,” Rahman said, referring to the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar that year.
“But now they are all gone… I am completely devastated,” Rahman said. “We Rohingyas are left to die… on land, in the sea. Everywhere”.
Earlier this month, two groups of Rohingya activists from Myanmar said up to 20 people had died of starvation or thirst on a ship that the UNHCR said had been stranded at sea off the coast of India for two weeks. The boat, carrying at least 100 people, was in Malaysian waters.
Among the frightening casualties, some boats landed or were rescued at sea.
On Monday, the International Organization for Migration said in a statement that 57 Rohingyas landed in the Indonesian region of Aceh Besar in the early hours of December 25 with the support of members of the local community. The men-only ship sailed from Bangladesh and drifted at sea for nearly a month.
Indonesian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two boats carrying 230 Rohingya refugees, including women and children, landed in the Indonesian province of Aceh in November, and this month the Sri Lankan Navy rescued 104 Rohingyas drifting off the island’s northern coast in the Indian Ocean.
“Life in the camp is full of uncertainties, there is no hope that they will return home soon,” said Mohammed Imran, a former leader of the Rohingya community who returned to Bangladesh from Malaysia.