Rising despair and violence in Bangladesh’s teeming refugee camps are driving what the United Nations calls a “dramatic increase” in ethnic Rohingya risking perilous journeys across the Andaman Sea in search of better lives abroad, refugees and rights groups have told VOA.
More than a million predominantly Muslim Rohingya now live in the camps after being driven from their homes in Buddhist-majority Myanmar by decades of persecution, including a 2017 campaign of murder, rape and arson by security forces that the U.N. called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Earlier this month the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued a public “alert” to warn of the sharp rise this year in the number of people, mostly Rohingya, fleeing both Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat. Most head for Muslim-majority Malaysia or Indonesia, and many who board the old and overcrowded boats die or are lost along the way.
According to the December 2 alert, some 1,920 people have made the trip since January, and 119 of them are reported to have died or gone missing. That compares with fewer than 300 people who made the trip and 29 reported dead or missing in 2021.
“The sense of desperation is growing,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the UNHCR told VOA.
Most of the Rohingya in the camps arrived in 2017, but some have been there for decades.
Muhammed, a Rohingya refugee living in the camps and who asked that his last name not be used, said more and more of them are losing hope of returning to Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and the military, which orchestrated the 2017 pogroms, toppled the country’s elected government in a 2021 coup.
“We had hope that one day we can go back to our country with the support of the international community,” he said.
“But right now ... we don’t know how many years we will need to wait to go back to our country. No one is putting to the Myanmar government strong pressure to take [us] back,” he added. “So right now what should we do?... We try to go to some country like Malaysia and Thailand ... because we are losing hope.”
He said he tried leaving for Malaysia by boat himself but was caught by local authorities before reaching the coast and sent back to the camps.
Muhammed and rights workers familiar with camp conditions say life for the refugees in Bangladesh is also getting tougher, with rising gang violence and mounting restrictions on their movement outside and even between the camps, limiting their ability to work, and shrinking opportunities for an education.
“If you were 8 years old and now you are 13 and you want to study and there is no education opportunity in Bangladesh ... and when you were 15 when you [fled] from Burma [Myanmar’s former name] and you are now 20 and you want to have a life of your own and these things are not there, the future seems very, very, very dark,” said Aung Kyaw Moe, an ethnic Rohingya and adviser to Myanmar’s so-called National Unity Government, a shadow government in hiding and self-exile aiming to topple to junta.
A few hundred thousand Rohingya still live in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, many of them in guarded and fenced-off camps built by the military after a 2012 wave of deadly communal violence between local Muslims and Buddhists.
Those Rohingya are now caught in the middle of renewed clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, one of several ethnic minority armed groups in Myanmar fighting for autonomy. Rights groups say dozens of civilians have died in the crossfire.
That, too, is driving growing numbers of Rohingya to take to the Andaman Sea from Rakhine, said John Quinley of the research and advocacy group Fortify Rights.
The fighting in Rakhine is “creating major difficulties for villagers living in those parts of the country, and a lot of those villagers are Rohingya people, and so they’re taking really risky journeys to try to access more opportunities in Malaysia and Thailand and other places,” he said.
UNHCR spokesman Baloch said the smugglers and human traffickers organizing the boat trips are also growing more sophisticated, finding new ways to reach and entice potential passengers via social media, and boarding them onto smaller, more evasive boats before transferring them onto larger ships once out at sea.
The ultimate hope and goal of most refugees, aid agencies and governments is to create the conditions in Myanmar under which the Rohingya feel safe to return, including full citizenship rights. Most analysts and advocates say that remains a long way off.
Until then, Baloch said the UNHCR is trying to bring the numbers of people fleeing Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat down again by helping the countries ringing the Andaman Sea coordinate their efforts to stop the smuggling and trafficking networks moving them. He said the agency is also urging more governments to help Bangladesh shoulder more of the burden of hosting the more than 1 million refugees.
Quinley and Aung Kyaw Moe said Malaysia and Thailand must also stop their reported practice of sometimes ignoring the Rohingya-loaded boats that break down in their waters or even pushing them further out to sea, although the governments have disputed those accounts.
This year’s numbers are still well below what the U.N. has called the “crisis” levels of 2013 to 2015, when tens of thousands of Bengalis and Rohingya were crossing the Andaman Sea each year and several hundred died or went missing.
Unless conditions in Rakhine and the refugee camps of Bangladesh start improving soon, though, the numbers of Rohingya taking the dangerous journeys and dying along the way are expected to continue rising.
“If the situation remains like this, definitely there will be more people going, and people wouldn’t care much whether they will be alive or whether they will be dying,” said Aung Kyaw Moe. “These people are betting with their life because the land is much more catastrophic than the sea that they’re jumping in.”