Rohingya death toll at sea in 2023 worst for almost a decade -UN

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – At least 569 Rohingya were reported to have died or gone missing while trying to flee Myanmar or Bangladesh in 2023, the highest toll since 2014, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday, calling for urgent action to protect the ethnic minority group.

The deaths or disappearances occurred during attempted crossings of the Andaman Sea or Bay of Bengal by nearly 4,500 Rohingya, the UNHCR said in a statement.

“The number reported missing or dead is the highest since 2014, when the total reached 730,” it said.

Survivors have shared horrifying accounts of abuse and exploitation during the journey, including gender-based violence, the UNHCR statement said.

“The majority of those attempting these journeys were children and women – some 66 % of those embarking on these deadly journeys. The refugees have been departing from Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, Myanmar.”

Over one million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar live in bamboo-and-plastic camps in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox’s Bazar, most after fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.  

Myanmar has been under military rule since a 2021 coup and the junta have shown little inclination to take back any Rohingya, who have long been regarded as foreign interlopers in Myanmar, denied citizenship and subjected to abuse.

But with prospects in the camps bleak and little hope of returning to Myanmar or being resettled, many are driven to take to boats in pursuit of new lives further afield.

In a single incident in November 2023, the UNHCR statement said, some 200 Rohingya lost their lives when their boat was reported to have sunk in  the Andaman Sea.

The UNHCR called on regional coastal authorities  to take  urgent action to prevent future tragedies. It said more  and more  desperate people were dying under the watch of numerous coastal states in the absence of timely rescue and disembarkations at the nearest place of safety.

“Saving  lives and rescuing those in distress  at sea  is  a humanitarian  imperative  and a longstanding duty under international maritime law,” the UNHCR said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; editing by Mark Heinrich)