Last year was the deadliest on record for Rohingya refugees journeying through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said in a new report on Thursday, highlighting that some two-thirds of those attempting the perilous voyages were women and children – risking even further abuse by smugglers.
Deadly journeys through Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea threaten 'tragic and fatal consequences'
“Left Adrift at Sea: Dangerous Journeys of Refugees Across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea” describes how over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation, prompting many States in Southeast Asia to tighten their borders.
This resulted in the highest numbers of refugees stranded at sea since the region’s “boat crisis” in 2015.
Deadly journeys not a new phenomenon
Over the past decade, thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled Rakhine State in Myanmar by sea to settle in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
According to the report, these dangerous journeys began “in Myanmar, where the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and denied basic rights”.
For the Rohingya who found refuge in neighbouring countries, “restrictions on movement, livelihoods and education are compelling factors to seek a future elsewhere in the region”.
The motivations are various and often overlapping, it states, including aspirations to reunite with family.
Ever more perilous
Risks have “increased markedly” for those attempting the journey, according to the report, which reveals that of the 2,413 people known to have travelled in 2020, 218 died or went missing at sea.
This means that journeys were eight times deadlier last year than those in 2019.
Earlier on, it was mostly men travelling, but now the majority of passengers are women and children.
Since 2020, the report showed that many refugees have been “marooned for months” on “unseaworthy boats, falling prey to abuses by smugglers, becoming gravely ill through insufficient food and water, and enduring the harsh conditions at sea, including both searing heat as well as treacherous waves and storms”.
These risks have been “prolonged on the occasions where States have ‘pushed back’ boats to prevent disembarkation”.
States called on to act
UNHCR urged all States in the region to search for refugees in distress at sea and rescue them to places of safety.
This must include working towards a regional mechanism for predictable and equitable disembarkation; providing access to asylum procedures for those who disembark; implementing dignified reception arrangements; and providing protection and assistance to refugees who disembark.
Finally, the root causes of refugee maritime movements must be addressed and access to safe legal pathways expanded.
UNHCR Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific Indrika Ratwatte warned that “collective failure to act will have tragic and fatal consequences”.
“We can and must do better”, he stressed.