DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities are raising the alarm over increasing numbers of Rohingya refugees going missing at sea as they take risky boat journeys to reach Southeast Asia through the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladesh hosts more than 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims, who, over decades, escaped death and persecution in neighboring Myanmar, especially during a military crackdown in 2017.
Most of them live in Cox’s Bazar district, a coastal region in eastern Bangladesh, which, with the arrival of the Rohingya, became the world’s largest refugee settlement.
Humanitarian conditions in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps have been deteriorating for years and last month Bangladeshi authorities warned that they were reaching crisis levels amid a sharp decline in global aid for the oppressed stateless minority.
Data from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, shows that in 2023, the annual UN fundraising plan by international agencies received only 50 percent of the $876 million needed to provide essential assistance to those sheltering in Bangladesh.
This coincided with the highest figure in nine years for the number of Rohingya refugees who died or went missing while trying to relocate to another country on their own.
“This trend of sea journey will increase in the coming future,” Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Arab News on Thursday.
“Camps are overcrowded. Despite every effort, sustainable living conditions can’t be offered.”
Despite awareness campaigns about the dangers of sea journeys and anti-human trafficking efforts, Rohingya in Bangladesh are losing hope in returning to their homes in Myanmar.
“They do not see any potential for repatriation,” Mizanur said. “In this context, people are getting desperate and trying to go wherever they can.”
UNHCR data shows that 569 Rohingya refugees died or went missing, with almost 4,500 embarking on deadly sea journeys from Bangladesh — and to a lesser extent from Myanmar — in 2023. The death toll was two times higher than in 2022. In 2014, the total was 730.
Some 66 percent of those attempting these journeys were children and women, many of whom were trying to reunite with their husbands and fathers who left earlier and reached countries like Malaysia, which is now home to more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees.
“They have some linkages with the community who traveled to Malaysia and other regional countries earlier. It encouraged the Rohingya to take the perilous journey by sea, which is the only way out for them as there is no legal solution or a third-country resettlement process in the picture,” Asif Munier, a rights and migration expert, told Arab News.
“They don’t think much about the danger of this journey. It’s kind of a survival option for them.”
He attributed the sharp rise in sea journeys to increasing psychological pressure and uncertainty, as despite multiple attempts from Bangladeshi authorities, the UN-backed repatriation and resettlement process of the Rohingya has failed to take off for the past few years.
At the same time, only a few relocations to third countries have taken place in extraordinary cases.
Munier does not expect the repatriation to progress in the coming years.
“I don’t think that they are unaware of the risks involved in this sea journey,” he said. “But they have witnessed so many dangers in their lives that it made them desperate and less fearful of death.”