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Seeking Safe Shores: The Rohingya in the Andaman Sea

Guest contributors

Saiful Arakani and Shafiur Rahman

In the dim light of early dawn, the shores of Muara Batu, north Aceh, bore witness to a heart-rending scene, a stark departure from the region’s tradition of hospitality. Hundreds of Rohingya refugees, exhausted and desperate, sat on the beach, their hopes of refuge dashed in the face of hostility.

BBC Indonesia captured the unfolding drama: villagers, while extending the meagre kindness of plastic bags filled with food, simultaneously compelled the weary refugees to return to their boats. 

The Rohingya, who had survived the treacherous Andaman Sea in search of safety, were met not with open arms but with shouts and threats of violence. Another video by Tribun Aceh showed an even more harrowing sight – Rohingya being physically dragged back to their boats, their pleas for asylum unheeded.

Since the end of October, the region has witnessed a significant increase in the number of Rohingya refugees undertaking perilous sea journeys from Bangladesh to Malaysia and Indonesia. This recent surge is not just a statistic; it represents far more than mere numbers. 

It is a plea for assistance, a reflection of the intolerable living conditions prevailing in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Teknaf, and Bhasan Char. The question that arises is twofold: Why do they undertake such dangerous voyages, and what are the harrowing experiences they face?

The Camps of Despair: Why Rohingya Refugees Flee

Life in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf has deteriorated into a daily struggle against fear and deprivation. Rohingya refugees, already scarred by the trauma of displacement, are confronted with an existence marred by violence and scarcity.

Interviews with those who have fled these camps reveal a dire picture: rampant violence orchestrated by insurgent groups, gangs, and even the camp authorities, inadequate rations of food, and an overwhelming sense of insecurity.

The presence of factions such as Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) within the camps has exacerbated the turmoil. Reports of factional clashes, threats, and physical violence are common, with the most vulnerable – women and children – often bearing the brunt. 

For instance, the harrowing story of Jainab*, a 19-year-old woman who fled to Indonesia to avoid the prospect of forced marriage and violence, underscores the personal and social struggles that drive many to seek escape.

Jainab found herself trapped in a vicious cycle of societal pressures and looming threats.  Her family, acutely aware of the risks, including the rampant sexual violence and exploitation by criminal groups, faced a harrowing choice. The decision to send Jainab away was agonising but clear. Her family believed that her safety and dignity could no longer be assured in the camp where she had been the victim of rape.

With few options, they turned to the perilous path of sea migration, entrusting her fate to traffickers and unpredictable waters rather than the volatile and unsafe conditions of the camp. Jainab’s story is not unique. It echoes the narratives of many other young women and families in the camp, who are forced to weigh the dangers of a sea journey against the perils of staying behind.

Parallel to Jainab’s story is the equally distressing account of Yasmin Fatima, a mother of five on Bhasan Char. Faced with despair and dwindling hope on the island, Yasmin was compelled to make a decision no parent should ever have to face. She made the choice to leave with only one of her children – her youngest.

The gravity of Yasmin’s situation was highlighted in an Indonesian online news report, showing refugees who had just landed. Her family, still in the Bhasan Char camp, recognised her in the footage, a fleeting glimpse that brought a moment of hope.

However, their brief joy turned to profound sorrow when they learned that the child Yasmin had taken with her, the sole companion of her hopeful escape, had not survived the journey. The cause of the child’s death was tragically all too common in such desperate voyages: consumption of salt water.

The personal tragedies of Yasmin and Jainab magnify the broader plight within the camps. The struggle for basic necessities such as clean water, food, and healthcare is a daily reality for many families. 

Families find themselves in a perpetual state of need. This scarcity not only threatens their physical well-being but also erodes any hope for a stable future. Parents, faced with such grim prospects, often see the journey across the sea as the only viable path to a better life for their children.

The Role of Traffickers in a Hopeless Landscape

In this landscape of despair, human traffickers have found a lucrative market. They promise the refugees a journey to a safer land, but the reality is far grimmer. Around 1,600 Rohingya, including families with young children, have been herded onto eight overcrowded and ill-equipped boats in the five weeks between the end of October and the first week of December. 

These vessels are floating coffins, lacking adequate food, water, and basic safety measures. The refugees face not only the natural dangers of the sea but also the risk of exploitation and abandonment by the traffickers.

MD Shaheed, among the refugees who left for Indonesia, gave a first-hand account of the horrors meted out by these traffickers. He tells of brutal control, including acts of rape. When he dared to protest, he was beaten severely and suffered a head injury. In spite of his condition, he was forcibly taken to Indonesia.

Among the traffickers is a Rohingya residing in a refugee camp in Pekanbaru, Indonesia. He stands out for his particularly ruthless methods. He has been a central figure in the human trafficking network, orchestrating dangerous sea voyages for Rohingya refugees. 

His operations are marked by a distinct lack of concern for human life, as evidenced by his decision to use old and unreliable boats, significantly increasing the risk of these perilous journeys. He has been known to abandon refugees at sea, disconnecting his phone and leaving them without guidance or support.

A Shifting Regional Response and Local Sentiments

In stark contrast to their history of extending aid and refuge, regions that once accepted the Rohingya are now increasingly resistant to their arrival. Notably, Indonesia, which had previously set an example by rescuing and providing sanctuary to Rohingya refugees, is witnessing a shift in both governmental policy and public sentiment. 

The recent pushbacks of boats by Indonesian authorities mark a departure from its earlier humanitarian stance, aligning with a regional trend of declining refuge. This change is mirrored in the attitudes of some sections of local populations who, despite a past marked by heroic efforts to rescue and assist Rohingya refugees, are now showing signs of fatigue and resistance. 

It’s essential to recognise that these Rohingya stories are part of an ongoing cycle of peril and loss. In December 2023, this cycle repeated itself in a chilling echo of the past. Several boats, carrying desperate Rohingya refugees, found themselves in grave danger in the Andaman Sea, struggling against the same heavy winds and treacherous waters that had claimed lives only a year earlier.

One such boat, which had been adrift for a month in December 2022, was rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat. In a tragic parallel, another boat, managed by a trafficker and a captain, sank in a cyclone, taking with it 180 passengers. This December, the cycle repeated as three more boats faced the wrath of a cyclone in the same treacherous waters.

These recurring tragedies in the Andaman Sea are not mere incidents but a testament to the unending struggles of the Rohingya. They highlight the desperate measures these refugees take, year after year, in their search for safety and dignity – measures that often lead them into the heart of peril.

*names changed to protect their identities.

Saiful Arakani is a Rohingya refugee journalist. Shafiur Rahman is a documentary film maker.

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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