Heart-breaking testimonies from Rohingya refugee children who were rescued from a boat found adrift in the Bay of Bengal in April, tell of desperate children beaten and left to starve during months at sea, and forced to watch their parents’ bodies thrown overboard.
Save the Children is releasing these harrowing testimonies amid media reports of yet another vessel, reportedly carrying more than 200 Rohingya refugees which was intercepted off the coast of Langkawi and brought to shore by the Malaysian authorities on Monday, June 8.
In early May, 16-year-old Aziz* told Save the Children he was trapped out at sea for almost two months. Aziz ran out of food and water after the boat he was travelling on was turned away from Malaysia for a third time due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“All the food we had was finished. We were starving for days. The boat was not big enough to hold a lot of people. I can’t remember how many people there were, but we barely could move [as] we were sitting so tightly together. We had no water to drink. Some people drunk water from the sea. They got sick later.
“We were at sea for almost two months. I saw a man dying and the broker threw the body into the sea. The broker beat us when we asked him to turn around and go back to Bangladesh. I never thought I would survive.”
Another Rohingya child, 8-year-old Sara*, told Save the Children staff that she was trying to get to Malaysia by boat with her mother and 9-year-old brother. Sara’s* mother died on the boat, her body thrown into the sea in front of her children.
The vessel was returned to Bangladesh and Sara* and her brother are now being looked after by their grandparents in a Cox’s Bazar camp. Sara* is receiving mental health support to help her cope with the trauma of losing her mother.
19-year-old Abdullah* told Save the Children he made the perilous journey by sea so he could find some work. After three unsuccessful attempts to reach Malaysia, his overcrowded boat started sailing towards Myanmar.
“We were hopeless. Because at that time we were already dying for food and water. We had no idea where we should go! Then the broker called us and said to head to Myanmar. We went there but we were turned away. After that we kept floating without any food or a drop of drinking water. Almost 60 days we kept floating. Then we were rescued by the Bangladeshi coast guard. Almost 80-90 people died due to hunger and from drinking ocean water.”
Having fled extreme violence in Myanmar, and the congested camps of Cox’s Bazar, hundreds of Rohingya children could still be stuck on overcrowded and dangerous vessels at sea, in a desperate bid to escape their living conditions and find a future for themselves. Recent media reports also suggest that the fear of COVID-19 and the associated quarantine could be pushing Rohingya refugees to flee from the camps in Bangladesh.
Hassan Saadi Noor, Asia Regional Director, Save the Children, said:
“It is clear that Rohingya families are still so desperate that they are ready to make dangerous journeys, often at the mercy of criminal organisations. Save the Children is calling for all nations across the region to share the responsibility of both protecting and providing for the Rohingya, while also engaging Myanmar to find a long-term solution to this crisis.
“Asian countries made commitments under the 2016 Bali Declaration to work together to welcome and aid refugees at sea, not push them away and leave them to die. Governments shouldn’t use COVID-19 as an excuse to deny vulnerable refugees their rights.
“As long as Rohingya do not see a future for themselves, families will continue to make dangerous journeys and put themselves in harm’s way in search of a better life. To date, Bangladesh is one of the few countries to have recently allowed desperate Rohingya to come ashore after having been stuck at sea. We are calling on all governments in the region to conduct search and rescue missions to bring all boats stranded at sea to safety in accordance with international law.
“All children have the right to an unambiguous citizenship and documentation, which Myanmar continues to deny the Rohingya. We would like to see a comprehensive solution to this crisis that ensures accountability and addresses the root causes of violence and discrimination against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
“Displaced Rohingya must be able to return to their towns and villages in a safe, dignified and voluntary manner, with respect for the rights of children and their families as equal citizens of Myanmar. The Myanmar Government must take swift and concrete action to create the conditions that would allow Rohingya children to grow up outside the camps of Cox’s Bazar, safe, and at home in Rakhine.”