RISING numbers of Rohingya refugees are fleeing from camps in Bangladesh by boat, taking entire families, including children, with them, as they despair of ever returning home to Myanmar, the United Nations reports
The UN’s High Commissioner on Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said that 3572 refugees had left Bangladesh and Myanmar this year — one third of them children. This is a sharp rise on the number (1947) taking to the sea by boat the previous year.
The boat journey to Indonesia is long — 1120 miles — and perilous. So far this year, 225 refugees have lost their lives or are missing at sea, the charity Save the Children said. More than 1000 refugees have arrived in Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia, this month.
Children told staff of Save the Children’s partner agency in Aceh that, before landing, they had spent 11 days at sea without food, and two without water. Communities in Indonesia have attempted to push the boats back out to sea, saying that they did not have the resources to cope with more refugees. One boat, with about 200 refugees on board, was pushed back into the sea twice, and disappeared from view, news agencies have reported.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention; so it says that it does not have to take in refugees.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said that nations in the region should collaborate to ensure co-ordinated search-and-rescue operations for people at sea in dangerous vessels.
One million Rohingya refugees have been living in the world’s largest refugee settlement at Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, for six years, after fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar. Conditions in the camps were dire, as food assistance was cut twice this year after international aid funding dried up.
Sultana Begum, from Save the Children, said: “Rohingya children are putting their lives on the line by taking these extremely dangerous journeys. Many of them are on boats for days — sometimes even weeks — and are desperate for food and water when they reach land. No child should have to endure weeks at sea in a flimsy boat. The increase we are seeing this year is extremely worrying.
“Those attempting sea journeys are at risk of abuse, exploitation, and even death at sea. The desperate situation of Rohingya families is forcing them to take unacceptable risks in search of a better life. These perilous journeys show that many Rohingya refugees have lost all hope.”
Members of the Rohingya community who have remained in Myanmar are under renewed threat, as the UN says that the country is gripped by escalating violence.
The military seized power in 2021 (News, 12 February 2021), but have struggled to control opposition to their rule. Fierce fighting has broken out, which has been particularly intense in recent weeks. UN human-rights investigators have reported war crimes, and crimes against humanity, in the conflict. A case is under way in the International Court of Justice in which Myanmar is accused of committing genocidal acts against the Rohingya community.
Aid charities have called for proper funding for Rohingya refugees, and have called on the international community to work with the government in Bangladesh to find ways to resettle them.