The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for refugees crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the favoured sea route for Rohingya attempting to reach Southeast Asia from the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Of the 2,413 people known to have travelled in 2020, 218 died or went missing at sea, the UNHCR said in a new report: Left Adrift at Sea: Dangerous Journeys of Refugees Across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, which was released on Thursday. That made an already dangerous journey eight times more deadly than in 2019.
The agency noted that many countries in Southeast Asia tightened their borders as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many refugees stranded at sea. That number was the highest since the region’s “boat crisis” of 2015.
“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,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, said in the report. “We can and must do better.”
Over the past 10 years, thousands of Rohingya refugees have tried to reach safety in Southeast Asia – usually in Malaysia or Indonesia – after being denied their basic rights in their native Myanmar. After a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that is now the subject of a genocide investigation, hundreds and thousands fled across the border to Bangladesh where they now live in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar or on the remote, low-lying island of Bhasan Char.
In contrast to earlier periods where most of those travelling were men, the UN said the majority of passengers were now women and children who were at greater risk of abuse by smugglers.
Southeast Asian countries have become increasingly reluctant to allow Rohingya refugees to land, with countries including Malaysia and Thailand citing the COVID-19 outbreak as a reason not to allow refugees to come ashore.
The agency noted reports that countries had “pushed back” vessels leaving refugees marooned for months on unseaworthy boats which lacked food and water.
In June last year, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Malaysia was no longer able to take in Rohingya because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The country is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and the more than 100,000 Rohingya who live in Malaysia are left to survive on their own with the support of civil society and community groups. They are not allowed to work and have limited access to health services and schooling.
The UNHCR urged all states in the region to search for and rescue refugees in distress at sea and allow them to disembark to a place of safety.
Among other measures, it also called on countries in the region to provide access to asylum procedures for those who disembark and to address the root causes of refugee maritime movements, including expanding access to safe legal pathways.
The report comes in the same week a boat carrying about 40 Rohingya refugees capsized in bad weather in the Bay of Bengal after the group tried to escape Bhasan Char. Fishermen rescued about 14 people who were taken back to the island but more than two dozen others were feared drowned.
In June, a boat carrying 81 people washed ashore on an uninhabited island off the Indonesian island of Sumatra after drifting for more than 100 days at sea. Refugee workers say the group, many of them women and children, had originally come from camps in Bangladesh to waters off the coast of India. When their boat broke down, the Indian coastguard fixed it and gave them supplies but did not allow them to land.