2020 was the deadliest year for refugees on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, says report

Over 200 Rohingya refugees who took to the seas in 2020 died or went missing, according to a report by the UNHRC, the UN Refugee Agency. The number of women and children making such trips has increased

August 21, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
At least 81 Rohingya refugees were rescued in waters off Idaman Island near Indonesia's Aceh in June [Photo by Muzakir Nurdin for Geutanyoe Foundation]

At least 3,046 Rohingyas attempted to cross the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal between January 2020 to June 2021, as per the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Of the 2,413 people who traveled by sea last year, 218 died or went missing.

In its report titled “Left Adrift At Sea: Dangerous Journeys of Refugees Across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea”, the rights organization notes more than two-thirds of those traveling are women and children. The movement of refugees escaping via sea route are continuing even today and “will likely continue until there is a lasting solution to the discrimination and violence the Rohingya face in Rakhine State.”

Over the past decade, thousands of Rohingya refugees have left by sea from Rakhine State and from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This followed the persecution of the community who were stripped of their citizenship and denied basic rights in Myanmar.

The travel on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal has been deemed by UNHCR to have become eight times more dangerous as compared to previous years.

According to the 34-page report, 2020 was the deadliest year in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea since UNHCR began monitoring deaths at sea in the region. “This death rate amounts to 8 percent of those taking the sea journey. As of June, at least 9 people have already died or gone missing at sea in 2021,” the report said.

On August 14, at least 27 Rohingya refugees went missing after their boat sank during an attempt to escape a Bangladeshi island camp. In another incident in June, a boat carrying 81 Rohingya refugees was washed ashore at an uninhabited island in Indonesia after drifting for more than 100 days at sea. The refugees had been traveling for three months from India to Aceh when they were discovered at Idaman Island.

“In 2019, as many as 1,337 people took [to] the sea and before that 762 persons attempted to cross in 2018. Between January to June 2021, 633 persons are known to have traveled by sea,” the report said.

The number of women and children making the trip has been increasing: “From 2020 to 2021, two-thirds of the people who made the trip were women and children, and most of the children were girls.”

Survivors often report brutal physical abuse at the hands of smugglers, the agency noted. “Refugees are beaten for asking for more food or water. Women and girls have reported being forcibly taken by smugglers into their quarters and sexually abused. Deaths at the hands of smugglers have also been reported.”

Following the spread of the global pandemic that created an emergency healthcare crisis, several countries in Southeast Asia have tightened their borders as part of their response to stop the spread of the virus, which has left many refugees stranded at sea.

Indrika Ratwatte, the UNHCR’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, in the foreword to the report, said that “as long as states bordering the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are reluctant to rescue and land those in distress at sea, that collective failure to act will have tragic and fatal consequences.”

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