Number of Rohingya refugees undertaking treacherous sea journey more than quadruples in past year

The number of Rohingya refugees who have attempted deadly sea crossing to escape persecution in Myanmar has more than quadrupled in the past year, according to the latest data from the United Nations’ refugee arm.

UNHCR said more than 3,500 Rohingya refugees tried to cross the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in 2022 in 39 boats. The number represents a 360 per cent increase on the year before when some 700 people made similar journeys.

The Rohingya are a persecuted ethnic minority in their home in Myanmar. More than a million Rohingya live in overcrowded camps in southern Bangladesh following a campaign against them by the Myanmar military. Many are trying to reach Malaysia, where there is a large Rohingya community.

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UNHCR warned more people would die on the high seas and called on coastal nations to take action. The body said 348 people have died or gone missing at sea over the past year, making it one of the deadliest years since 2014.

Rohingya refugees are rescued from a wooden boat near the Aceh province of Indonesia a year ago.

Some 3,040 individuals who undertook the sea journey disembarked last year, primarily in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Nearly 45 per cent of those who disembarked were women and children. Many boats – some of them wooden fishing boats – have been left adrift in seas for weeks.

On Boxing Day, one boat carrying more than 180 asylum seekers was finally allowed to land some of its passengers in the Indonesian province of Aceh, after drifting without power into Indian and Indonesian waters for a month following the breakdown of its engine.

UNHCR and other activist groups had appealed to the Indian and Indonesian authorities to help after refugees on board said they were starving and reported some people had died. However, it was believed the Indian navy gave them some food and water and towed them back to Indonesia, before leaving the boat drifting offshore for six more days until they were granted permission to land.

Most of those who attempted to seek asylum through a boat journey last year departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh, which UNHCR said highlighted the growing sense of desperation amongst Rohingya in those two countries. Those who have disembarked report they undertook these dangerous sea journeys in an effort to find protection, security, family reunification and livelihoods in other countries. Among them are victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

UNHCR said the response needed to be more evenly distributed across countries.

The organisation said: “The current crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is a crisis of solidarity. The Bali Process, a forum for policy dialogue, information sharing and co-operation to address people smuggling, human trafficking and related transnational crime, will hold its eighth ministerial meeting in February.

"UNHCR repeats its call for prompt search and rescue and timely disembarkation in a place of safety, and for support to countries where Rohingya refugees are disembarked. We call on countries to redouble efforts to prevent human smuggling and trafficking.”

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The refugee body added: “The region and the international community need to support efforts to address the root causes of displacement in Myanmar. Until these are resolved, refugees will continue to undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety.”



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