Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 22, 12 February 2020

Bangladesh: 15 dead as an overcrowded boat with 138 Rohingyas capsizes
Sourina Bej

In the news

An overcrowded wooden fishing boat carrying about 138 Rohingya refugees from the refugee camps in Bangladesh sank near the Saint Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal on 11 February, leaving at least 15 confirmed dead, mostly women. According to Captain Waseem Maqsood, the coastguard commander in the Chittagong division, around 71 people were rescued alive, while more than 40 remain unaccounted. The Bangladesh authorities believe the boat departed from Teknaf, an administrative region of Cox's Bazar, south of Bangladesh on the Myanmar border. Teknaf is the point of entry to Bangladesh, where the influx of Rohingya refugees has taken place in recent years. While most still live in the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, more than few Rohingya refugees have attempted to go overseas.

Issues at large 

The incident on 11 February is the latest in the series of the attempts made by the Rohingya refugees to flee Myanmar by illegal routes in the sea. The exodus peaked in 2015 when an estimated 25,000 people fled across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia but were stranded and drowned after the respective governments restricted their illegal entry.

The Rohingya refugees are enticed by traffickers to board the boat from various points as they head for Malaysia. They are lured on promises of a better and dignified life, income and survival in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The coast guard thwarted many past attempts to travel illegally by boat, but the Rohingyas have embarked on dangerous seas. The UN International Organisation for Migration has put an estimated 8,000 Rohingyas from Bangladesh and Myanmar to be stranded at sea.

The Thai government in 2015 begun crackdown on smugglers who have traditionally taken the Rohingyas to camps in southern Thailand and held them ransom. As a result, the smugglers are now abandoning the Rohingyas at sea. Not only are the countries, but the fishermen are also restricted from helping them with boats. In Indonesia, the Aceh province has sometimes accepted asylum seekers, but they are usually barred from working and often spend years in immigration centres. Another favoured route by the Rohingyas is the Indo-Bangladesh border whereby the Rohingya refugees reach India through road by sneaking at night. 

In perspective 

First, the Rohingyas are unwelcome in the countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. The Thailand navy has indicated allowing refugee camps on its shores but is turning boats away and does not want permanent settlers. Malaysia is the choice of destination for most Rohingyas because it is predominantly Muslim and short of an unskilled labourer, but it has ordered its navy to repel them. Indonesia has an official stand on not welcoming the Rohingyas, thereby turning away boatloads. India had initially maintained a nonchalant stand on receiving the Rohingyas. However, with a strong message recently, India has detained and often deported the Rohingyas who cross the border illegally. In a situation where the neighbouring countries have repeatedly turned their back on the Rohingyas, the desperate choice of going illegally is most favoured.  

Second, the refugee camps in Bangladesh are overpopulated, dilapidated, water short and little scope for alternate livelihood. With Bangladesh facing the cost of a population upsurge, additional numbers of Rohingya are a burden for the country. Bangladesh has searched for a more permanent and tangible solution to rehabilitate the Rohingya refugees through repatriation. However, it has failed to materialise between Bangladesh and Myanmar. With a regular influx of Rohingyas from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, Bangladesh is planning to shift the Rohingyas to a sinking island. Left with little choice, the Rohingya refugees are seeking to leave the camps and look for refuge again. 

Last, the first recognition of the condition of the Rohingyas came with the ICJ ruling last month, but a worsening relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar and no political pressure on Myanmar from the neighbourhood leaves no scope for the Rohingyas but to fend for themselves. Bangladesh has taken steps to secure its only border with Myanmar by constructing barbed wires, while India has also secured its borders with Bangladesh. In this, the Rohingyas have sought the sea for survival. 

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