Following reports over the past weeks of dozens of Rohingya refugees being feared drowned after having jumped into the sea from their boats, it appears now that at least 46 have made it to Thailand this week.
The Thai Maritime Enforcement Command Center reported on its Facebook page Sunday that some Thai fishermen had rescued three Rohingya boys from the sea that morning. From a boat carrying “around 100 Rohingya refugees, three jumped into the sea” and came closer to the fishing boat seeking help, the Facebook post said.
A Thai tourist boat saved another Rohingya teenager from drowning after he was found swimming toward the boat, seeking help, Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya support and movement group Arakan Project, told VOA Friday, pointing to a video shot in the past few days.
“We also have the information that a group of around 42 Rohingya is being detained at a local police station after they were arrested in Phuket,” she said, noting that Phuket, an island, is not usually on the land route of the smugglers who transport Rohingya groups to Malaysia.
However, several Bangladesh- and Malaysia-based Rohingyas told VOA that they believed that the roughly 42 arrested in Phuket on Tuesday were from a group of 70-80 who jumped overboard from their boat around Dec. 23.
Mohammad Zubair, who lives in Malaysia, said that he was “dead sure” that his cousin jumped from a boat along with others when their boat was close to Phuket.
“My cousin Mohammad Enatullah was on a land-and-sea route, when he left the [refugee] camp in Bangladesh and set out for Malaysia. From Myanmar, he boarded a boat on December 13 that carried around 200 Rohingya. I stayed in regular touch with him over a mobile phone on the boat,” Zubair told VOA.
Apart from taking a direct sea route, some people smugglers take Rohingya first from Bangladesh to Myanmar by small boats. They travel overland in Myanmar, before taking boats again to reach Thailand. From Thailand they cross the border and enter Malaysia by road. They do not pass through Phuket using this route.
Zubair added that on Dec. 22 his cousin called him, saying his boat was moving very slowly and that food and water had run out, but he hoped they would land in Indonesia or Malaysia soon.
“When I called the mobile phone on December 24, a Rohingya man on the boat said that along with over 70 people, all men, my cousin had jumped into the sea on December 23 when they were close to an island. When I called the phone again later that day, another Rohingya said that my cousin and others had swum toward the island and had apparently managed to reach there. After December 25, despite many attempts I could not reach that phone,” he said.
He said that he was convinced that the boat was close to southern Thailand, where Phuket is located. He also said he believes hunger and thirst forced the men to jump overboard and attempt to reach the Thai island in search of food and water.
Thai police have not so far announced the arrest of the roughly 42 Rohingya.
As the aid groups said this week that more Rohingya from Bangladesh were still in the sea trying to reach Indonesia and Malaysia, people from the group of 174 who washed ashore on a disabled boat in Indonesia Monday said that at least 20 men from their boat jumped in the sea and drowned.
Lewa said mental stress also drives some Rohingyas to jump overboard on their way to Malaysia.
“In the past weeks, many Rohingyas jumped overboard even when no other boat was in sight to rescue them,” she said.
“This appears to be a psychological urge observed in other cases and regions where people in distress experience severe mental stress in the face of fear and desperation, for which they have a tendency to throw themselves at sea as a form of suicide.”
Zubair said that he hopes his cousin is alive.
“Many drowned after jumping into the sea. I hope, my cousin is lucky and has escaped death in the sea,” he said.