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Alarming Rise in Deaths of Rohingya Refugees Fleeing by Sea


FILE - Ethnic Rohingya refugees walk to a temporary shelter after they landed on their wooden boat in North Aceh, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2022.

The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, has recorded an alarming rise in the death toll of Rohingya refugees while attempting dangerous sea journeys in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in 2022.

At least 348 people died or disappeared while fleeing Myanmar or Bangladesh by sea last year, making it one of the deadliest years since 2014. That was when more than 700 people reportedly lost their lives or disappeared in a desperate bid for protection from persecution.

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 3,500 Rohingya attempted perilous sea crossings in 2022. Some 700 people made similar journeys the year before.

UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said the dramatic increase in the number of people willing to risk their lives smacks of despair among a population that sees no way out of its misery.

"We are hearing reports, as we mentioned, from Rohingya about this growing sense of desperation and this anxiety about the future. And really no hope for security, for protection," Mantoo said. "Some of them are willing to reunite with family members. Others, their vulnerabilities are being exploited by traffickers or smugglers luring them with both promises and false hope."

Mantoo said most of the 39 boats that made the dangerous sea journey last year departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the sense of desperation among Rohingya in those two countries.

In the last two months of 2022, she said four boats carrying more than 450 Rohingya disembarked in Aceh, Indonesia, and another boat carrying 100 people disembarked in Sri Lanka. She said one boat, carrying 180 Rohingya Muslims, is feared to have sunk in early December.

"Calls by UNHCR to maritime authorities in the region to rescue and disembark people in distress have been ignored or have gone unheeded with many boats adrift for weeks … 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," Mantoo said.

In August 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims subject to violence and persecution in Myanmar fled to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. They are living in overcrowded camps along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees who previously had fled from Myanmar.

The UNHCR says conditions in Myanmar have not improved and it is not safe for them to return to a country that views them as illegal immigrants and denies them citizenship.

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