At least 218 Rohingyas died or went missing at sea in 2020 as they desperately sought refuge in the Southeast Asian countries either from Myanmar's Rakhine State or Bangladesh's Rohingya camps, a new UN report says.
They are part of 2,413 Rohingyas who are known to have travelled last year, making it the deadliest year on record for refugee journeys in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea since the region's "boat crisis" in 2015, according to the report of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, released yesterday.
"This means that journeys were eight times deadlier in 2020 than those in 2019," according to the report titled "Left Adrift at Sea: Dangerous Journeys of Refugees Across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea".
It also highlights that some two-third of those attempting these perilous voyages are women and children in contrast to earlier periods where most of those travelling were men.
UNHCR says these deadly journeys of the Rohingyas are not a new phenomenon. Over the past decade, thousands of Rohingya refugees have left by sea from Rakhine State in Myanmar and from the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.
"The roots of these dangerous journeys are found in Myanmar, where the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and denied basic rights."
Bangladesh hosts nearly a million Rohingyas, mostly those who fled a brutal military campaign in 2017. Back in Rakhine State, there are some 600,000 Rohingyas.
For the Rohingya who found refuge in neighbouring countries, restrictions on movement, livelihoods and education are compelling factors to seek a future elsewhere in the region. Motivations are various, often overlapping, and also include aspirations of reuniting with family members, UN Refugee Agency said.
They are at even greater risks of abuse by smugglers when making such journeys. Their ordeal was made worse because safe harbours to end their dangerous journey were nowhere to be found.
Since 2020, many refugees have been marooned for months on unseaworthy boats, falling prey to abuses by smugglers, becoming gravely ill through insufficient food and water, and enduring the harsh conditions at sea, it said.
These risks have been prolonged on the occasions where the regional states have "pushed back" boats to prevent disembarkation, UNHCR said.
UNHCR has called on all states in the region to search for and rescue refugees in distress at sea, and disembark them to a place of safety, work towards a regional mechanism for predictable and equitable disembarkation and provide access to asylum procedures for those who disembark.
It also called on the states to work with UNHCR and support fellow countries in the region to implement dignified reception arrangements and provide protection and assistance to refugees who disembark, and address the root causes of refugee maritime movements.
UNHCR's Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific Indrika Ratwatte said, "For 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. We can and must do better."