The possible sinking of a boat in recent weeks with 180 Rohingya Muslims on board could make 2022 one of the deadliest years at sea in almost a decade for the community, a UN agency said, as refugees try to flee desperate conditions in Bangladesh camps.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya from Myanmar are living in crowded facilities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, including tens of thousands who fled their home country after its military conducted a deadly crackdown in 2017.
The number of Rohingya leaving Bangladesh in boats this year has jumped more than fivefold from a year earlier, rights groups estimate. It is not clear if the lifting of COVID restrictions in Southeast Asia, a favoured destination, has led to the rush of people.
In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, most Rohingya are denied citizenship and are seen as illegal immigrants from South Asia.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said over the weekend that it feared that a boat that set sail at the end of November was missing, with all 180 on board presumed dead.
The UNHCR said the vessel, which was not seaworthy, may have started to crack in early December before losing contact.
It added it was not clear where the boat started, but three Rohingya men, including one who fears he has lost four family members, said it set off from Bangladesh.
Nearly 200 Rohingya were already feared dead or missing at sea this year. "We hope against hope that the 180 missing are still alive somewhere," UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told Reuters.
He said 2022 was one of the worst years for dead and missing after 2013 when 900 Rohingya died or went missing in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and 2014, with 700 dead or missing.
The number of boat departures from the Bay of Bengal rose sharply between 2012 and 2014 following inter-communal violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state where many Rohingya lived.
Sayedur Rahman, 38, who fled to Malaysia in 2012 from Myanmar, said his wife, two sons aged 17 and 13, and a daughter aged 12 were among the missing on the vessel.
"In 2017, my family came to Bangladesh to save their lives," Rahman said. "But they are now all gone ... I'm totally devastated... We Rohingyas are left to die ... on the land, at sea. Everywhere."
Earlier this month, two Myanmar Rohingya activist groups said that up to 20 people died of hunger or thirst on a boat, carrying at least 100 people, that was stranded for two weeks off India's coast, before possibly drifting to Malaysian waters.
India's coastguard had no immediate response. The UNHCR said it was a separate boat to the one carrying 180.
On Monday the International Organisation for Migration said that 57 Rohingyas disembarked in Indonesia's Aceh Besar district on 25 December. It said the boat, carrying only men and boys, is believed to have left Bangladesh and spent nearly a month adrift.
Indonesian officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Two boats carrying a total of 230 Rohingya refugees, including women and children, landed on the shores of Indonesia's Aceh province in November, while this month, Sri Lanka’s navy rescued 104 Rohingyas.
"Life in the camp is full of uncertainties, there is no hope that they can go back home soon," said Mohammed Imran, a former Rohingya community leader who has returned to Bangladesh from Malaysia.