Off the coast of Bangladesh and Burma, hundreds of refugees adrift in the open sea

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In the week of December 5, Rohingya refugees sent distress messages from drifting boats in the Andaman Sea. Their families have transmitted videos and called for help from human rights defenders who are asking Thailand and any other state whose coasts are close not to abandon these refugees.

A rowboat loaded with Rohingya refugees has been adrift for several days in the Andaman Sea, according to the testimonies of several relatives of the passengers who alerted the NGO Human Rights Watch. “The boat’s engine has failed, so they are drifting without sufficient food or water. Their relatives in Bangladesh have told Human Rights Watch that between 8 and 16 refugees have already died,” explains the Asian branch of the NGO to our editorial staff. The boat would have left the coast of Bangladesh from Teknaf to reach Malaysia on November 25.

More than a million Rohingya have fled Burma where they have been persecuted for years, especially after a violent offensive by the Burmese army in August 2017 – army which has controlled the country since February 2021 after a coup. The majority fled to neighboring Bangladesh or other Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: After escaping from a detention center, Rohingya victims of a “witch hunt” in Malaysia

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch have both insisted on the urgency of the situation and have renewed, with our editors, their call on the Thai government – or whoever can – to come help these refugees.

But so far, no country has intervened. The British news agency Reuters spoke with a Thai navy officer who claims the boat is in Indian waters, which the Indian navy denies, according to the British agency.

A location of the boat was transmitted by the refugees to their relatives, but this is likely to have changed, as the UNHCR points out to our editorial staff.

That same first week of December 2022, passengers on at least two other boats carrying Rohingya refugees sent distress messages to their relatives who also relayed them.

Contacted by our editorial staff, a UNHCR representative in Bangkok explained that it was more difficult to obtain reliable information on the location and situation of these two other boats, but that the UNHCR had indeed identified alarming signals concerning other refugee boats.

December 7, at least one of these boats was rescued by a Vietnamese oil service boat. This is not the one who shared his whereabouts and whose family members spoke to Human Rights Watch. He would still be at sea, according to information confirmed by the UNHCR to the editorial staff of France 24 Observers, Friday, December 9.

This video was forwarded via WhatsApp groups by family members of passengers the week of December 5. According to Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya exile, a man can be heard in the Rohingya language saying that there are children and dead women on the boat. We could not establish which boat it was with certainty.

Aung Kyaw Moe, adviser to the Ministry of Human Rights in Myanmar’s government-in-exile, told our editorial staff that she had received many messages of distress from the extended Rohingya family on the boat.

According to him, two boats left on November 18 and the third on November 25. Only the latter has a satellite phone on board, which explains why he was able to send his location, and that there is more information on the situation of this boat.

The Andaman Sea: a dangerous new migratory route

More Rohingya refugees are venturing across the Andaman Sea, according to a recent UNHCR report released last December 2 : 1,920 people, mostly Rohingya, traveled by sea from January to November 2022, from Burma and Bangladesh, compared to only 287 in 2021. This crossing claimed the lives of 119 people in 2022.

Bangladesh welcomes almost a million Rohingya refugeeswho mostly live in huge camps in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf where the boats would have left.

“They are betting on going to sea because it’s always better than their current situation or going back to Burma”

For Aung Kyaw Moe, the living conditions in these camps encourage exile despite the dangers:

Many Rohingya are leaving Bangladesh, where living conditions are very difficult, but they do not know when they will be able to return to Burma, where they risk being arrested. Many young people who grew up in the camps just want to start living so that’s why they take a gamble on their lives and set sail, despite the uncertainty. They do it because it’s always better than their current situation or going back to Burma”

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: “In each camp, a disaster”: in Bangladesh, the monsoon worsens the situation of the Rohingya

This video relayed by family members of refugees present on the boat shows Rohingya refugees on board a Vietnamese boat from the oil company Haduco, was filmed by a Vietnamese member of the crew on December 8, 2022, (according to the information transmitted by a journalist who relayed the video on Twitter

On December 8, these 154 refugees were handed over to the Burmese authorities. According to Aung Kyaw Moe, they risk being locked up without trial : “The Rohingya who fled, are arrested in Burma and put in prison, there is no trial, no lawyer”.

Video that originally circulated on WhatsApp groups of Eohingya refugees. The man in uniform wears the Burmese Navy crest.

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