Rohingya refugees bet lives on boat crossings despite rising death toll

Hatemon Nesa recalled hugging her young daughter tightly as the cramped, broken-down boat they were sitting on drifted aimlessly. They had set off on 25 November from the squalid Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, where they had lived since 2017, when a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee over the border.

The 27-year-old, like many other Rohingya refugees, was hoping for a better life in Malaysia. But about 10 days into the journey the boat’s engine stopped working and food and water supplies began to run out.

The roughly 30 children on board would cry out in pain from thirst and hunger. She feared her daughter would not survive. At least two children were to die during the doomed voyage.

Hatemon Nesa and her younger daughter Umme Salima, two days after they reached Indonesia.
Hatemon Nesa and her younger daughter, two days after they reached Indonesia. Photograph: family handout

“When it rained a few times we all got a few drops of water to moisten our throat. Some mothers including me made our children drink salty seawater,” Nesa said as she described the trauma of the journey from Indonesia, where she eventually came ashore on 26 December.

Close to 400 people, mostly Rohingya, are believed to have died making perilous boat journeys from Myanmar and Bangladesh across the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in 2022, according to the UNHCR, making it one of the deadliest years at sea in almost a decade for the Rohingya. An estimated 180 people are feared dead from one boat alone that went missing on 24 December.

Despite this, activists say more people are intending to board boats in 2023, and that women and children are increasingly among those making the crossing.

“Many of them [on boats] seem to be the wives and children of men that have arrived much earlier in Malaysia,” said Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, a rights group that tracks the boats. She has received reports of three boats currently at sea, including one that apparently left from Bangladesh last weekend, with between 130 and 150 people. On Sunday a boat with 185 people landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province – it is unclear if it was one of those Lewa had heard of.

A Rohingya refugee boat beached in Indonesia in December. Up to 400 people are estimated to have died making sea crossings in the region in 2022.
A Rohingya refugee boat beached in Indonesia in December. Up to 400 people are estimated to have died making sea crossings in the region in 2022. Photograph: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA-EFE

Nesa’s boat was carrying about 200 people. Those on board waved frantically at passing vessels hoping to attract help, while activists – including Nesa’s brother in Bangladesh – urged countries in the region to rescue them. At least 19 people jumped into the sea when they saw a boat, hoping to swim towards it, Nesa said. They are believed to have drowned.

Calls for boats to be rescued have been “ignored” by many in the region, said Babar Baloch, the UNHCR spokesperson for Asia and the Pacific, except by authorities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The people on Nesa’s boat were eventually rescued by Indonesian fisher and brought ashore.

“It’s like [tossing] a coin,” Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya activist, said of such journeys. “You bet your life, and if you make it, you survive.”

Desperation caused by the dire conditions in Bangladesh and Myanmar was driving people to take the risk, he added. Rohingya still in Myanmar, where a brutal conflict has taken place since the military seized power in a coup in 2021, are stuck in the middle of fighting between the junta and a rival group, the Arakan Army. The fighting means humanitarian aid, which persecuted Rohingya rely upon, has been reduced.

Rohingya refugees queue for aid at their temporary shelter in Pidie, northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
Rohingya refugees queue for aid at their temporary shelter in Pidie, northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Photograph: Antara Foto/Reuters

Aung Kyaw Moe said that for those living as refugees in Bangladesh, the prospect of justice for violence perpetrated by Myanmar’s military, or of returning home, felt very distant. “The camp in Bangladesh is overcrowded and unhygienic, [and] it’s becoming significantly insecure, with a growing number of crimes,” added Aung Kyaw Moe, who advises the human rights ministry of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, which was formed in exile to oppose junta rule.

Unless action was taken to stop people from trying to leave, they would continue to do so, he said.

Noor Kamal, 18, is among those who believes leaving Bangladesh is his best option. He wants to take a boat before the end of this year, he said, so that he can financially support his four younger sisters and parents.

“I am already 18. This is the time I should start earning for my family,” Kamal said. “But under the restrictions of the camp I am not allowed to go outside to earn my livelihood for my family. This is frustrating.” Officially, refugees in Bangladesh are not allowed to work and they face various restrictions on their movement.

Camps occupied by Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar Bangladesh from where many are driven to flee from dire living conditions.
Camps occupied by Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from where many are driven to flee from dire living conditions. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Kamal said reaching Malaysia was “like hitting the jackpot. For this, I am ready to take any amount of risk.” His friends who had made it were earning well, he added.

Rights experts, however, say others survive the journey only to end up in detention in countries such as Thailand or Malaysia, or exploited by traffickers.

“We know that agents of human traffickers are aggressively coaxing families who are likely to send their members to Malaysia,” said Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, Nesa’s brother, and a Rohingya activist. He added that he was aware of people preparing to leave.

Nesa said she had been told she would be moved to a camp-like facility in Indonesia. She hopes she will make it to Malaysia, and that her eldest daughter will also be able to join her and access education.

The journey to Malaysia was painful and fraught with serious risks, she added. “Yet, I will pray to Allah … After I have survived this ordeal, my faith in Allah has increased.”


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