Facing state persecution in two countries, Rohingya have been pushed to flee at an alarming rate

Two reports chronicle the alarming state of refugees in Myanmar and Bangladesh. In 2022, there was a 360% increase in the number of Rohingya attempting deadly sea crossings in these two countries

January 19, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Rohingya refugees
(Photo: UNHCR/Kenzie Eagan)

On Tuesday, January 17, a statement released by United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) noted that the year 2022 had been deadly for Rohingya refugees as there had been an “alarming rise” in the number of Rohingya attempting to flee from Myanmar or from neighboring Bangladesh, where a large number of them have taken asylum.   

“More than 3,500 desperate Rohingya attempted deadly sea crossings in 39 boats mainly from Myanmar and Bangladesh, last year,” UNHRC’s spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said in Geneva. “This represents a 360% increase on the year before, when some 700 people made these journeys,” she added.

The plight of the Rohingyas has been grim since 2017. As many as 740,000 Rohingyas have fled since then to neighboring states, fearing for their lives. Myanmar’s army, which took over the government of the country in February 2021, has been responsible for carrying out what the UN has called “textbook examples of ethnic cleansing.” 

Socio-economic conditions continue to worsen for the Rohingyas. Besides, the ongoing fighting between junta and anti-coup fighters in Myanmar continues to push hundreds of Rohingyas into the hands of those who smuggle them into nearby countries like Malaysia, often through the Andaman Sea.

Fleeing Rohingyas have often found themselves persecuted even by those they have sought asylum from, and have been forced to return to dangerous situations. The risks involved in taking the sea journey have turned many of them into “victims of trafficking […] and survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence.” 

The UNHCR statement also noted that many calls for rescue from Rohingya refugees at sea had gone unheeded by maritime authorities, esometimes for weeks. In December, a boat carrying an estimated 180 Rohingyas was feared to have been lost at sea.

“The current crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is a crisis of solidarity,” Mantoo said.

Mistreatment in Bangladesh 

On January 17, another damning report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Bangladesh police of indulging in “extortion, arbitrary arrests, and harassment” of Rohingya refugees. 

The HRW report noted that officers of the Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion were responsible for at least 16 serious abuses. As per dozens of refugees, police demanded hefty bribes and threatened refugees with arrest if they did not pay. “Police generally demanded 10,000-40,000 taka (USD 100-400) to avoid arrest, and 50,000-100,000 taka (USD 500-1,000) for the release of a detained family member. Families often had to sell gold jewelry or borrow money for bribes or legal costs,” the report said.

As cases of extortion continue to mount, the fear and vulnerability among the tens of thousands of Rohingya who have sought refuge in Bangladesh have also increased. 

The Rohingyas have been demanding that their daily harassment must end. A large number of them seeking refuge have found themselves caught between corruption and the gangs and armed groups that have mushroomed inside congested refugee camps. 

Repeated targeted killings that have taken place in refugee camps have paved the way for the Bangladeshi Armed Police Battalion to, in October 2022, start a police crackdown— named Operation Root Out—that has led the police to arrest more than 900 Rohingyas merely on the suspicion of involvement.

As the HRW report noted, “Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh lack recognized legal status, which puts them on a precarious footing under domestic law and makes them vulnerable to rights violations.”