A boat left Bangladesh carrying around 180 Rohingya refugees on December 1, 2022. These were babies, pregnant women and children who had fled the surging violence in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. They were heading towards Indonesia. Unfortunately, a week later, the boat vanished. The Associated Press (AP), based on dozens of interviews, audio recordings of calls from the boat, photos and videos, has reconstructed the passengers’ journey and discovered that the boat sank during a storm a week into its journey.
Human rights advocates have condemned global apathy and political inaction toward the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority population from Myanmar. According to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, at least 348 Rohingya refugees died or went missing while attempting to cross the Bay of Bengal or Andaman Sea last year. This has been the highest death toll since 2014. However, the UNHCR has declared that the repeated pleas to maritime authorities, to rescue some of these distressed boats in recent months, have been ignored.
Fear and misery have fueled the Exodus of the Rohingyas. More than 3,500 of them attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea last year, which was a 360% increase from the previous year, according to United Nations’ figures. These refugees have fled from lives of discrimination and violence, and brutal murders committed by gangs and warring militant groups. The Rohingya are banned from working and relying on food rations, which are continuously reducing due to a drop in global donations. The coup in Myanmar has made any safe return home at best a distant dream.
Those aboard the boat at the heart of the AP’s investigation were terrified, including its captain, Jamal Hussein, and eventually, they headed out into the Bay of Bengal in the hopes of ultimately reaching Malaysia, via Indonesia.
Numerous Rohingya boats have been abandoned by governments and left to die. The UNHCR says maritime authorities in the region repeatedly ignored its pleas to rescue some of those vessels despite knowing their precise locations. Enforcement is difficult though, while multiple international laws mandate the rescue of vessels in distress. Governments have ignored the Rohingya because they can. The region’s coastal nations used to hunt for boats in distress, only to push them into other countries search and rescue zones, says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya crisis. But now, they rarely even bother to look.
The lucky ones are eventually towed to shore in Indonesia by local fishermen. Yet even rescue can be perilous. A Vietnamese oil company saved one boat, then promptly handed the Rohingya over to the same deadly regime in Myanmar from which they’d fled. John Quinley, director of human rights group Fortify Rights says, “it was a total lack of political will and extremely heartless. The accountability and the onus really lie on everyone.”