On December 1, 2022, a boat carrying around 180 Rohingya refugees set out from Bangladesh, bound for Indonesia. On board were babies, pregnant women, and children fleeing surging violence in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.
One week later, the boat vanished.
The Associated Press has reconstructed the passengers’ journey based on dozens of interviews, audio recordings of calls from the boat, photos and videos. The AP’s reporting reveals the boat sank during a storm a week into its journey.
Human rights advocates say what happened to those on board is the latest example of political inaction and global apathy toward the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar. At least 348 Rohingya died or went missing while attempting to cross the Bay of Bengal or Andaman Sea last year – the highest death toll since 2014, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. Yet the UNHCR says its repeated pleas to maritime authorities to rescue some of these distressed boats in recent months have been ignored.
Last year, more than 3,500 Rohingya attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea – a 360 percent increase over the previous year, according to United Nations figures that are almost certainly an undercount.
The reasons so many Rohingya have boarded these boats are written on face after gaunt face in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps, where around 1 million Rohingya have been living for years in sweltering, overcrowded huts.
Most of the Rohingya in these camps fled what the United States has declared a genocide in Myanmar in 2017. In recent years, however, brutal killings by gangs and warring militant groups – many in broad daylight – have become commonplace in the refugee camps. So, too, have fires, some of them acts of arson.
Beyond the spiraling security situation is worsening hunger. The Rohingya are banned from working and rely on food rations, which have been slashed due to a drop in global donations. Meanwhile, a military coup in 2021 in Myanmar has made any safe return home at best a distant dream.
Many of those aboard the boat at the heart of AP’s investigation were terrified for their lives, including its captain, Jamal Hussein. And so, out of options, they headed out into the Bay of Bengal in the hopes of ultimately reaching Malaysia, via Indonesia.
They never made it.
One week into the passengers’ journey, a storm struck the Bay of Bengal. On December 7, a woman on board Jamal’s boat named Setera Begum used the vessel’s satellite phone to make a frantic call to her husband, Muhammed Rashid, who was in Malaysia.
Rashid recorded the call and shared it with the AP. In the recording, Setera – who was traveling with two of her teenage daughters – shouts: “Oh, Allah, our boat has sunk! Only half of it is still afloat! Please pray for us and tell my parents!”
Rashid asks where she is, and Setera at first says “Indonesia,” before checking with a fellow passenger and saying “India.” She then cries, “Oh, Allah, it’s sunk by the waves, it’s sunk by the storm!”
Soon after, the call cuts out.
Jamal’s boat was being followed by another vessel carrying Rohingya refugees. The captain of the second boat, Kafayet Ullah, says he watched as Jamal’s boat made a sharp turn in the waves, and flipped over. Kafayet heard people screaming.
Then the screams stopped. The light on board Jamal’s boat blinked out.
No trace of the passengers has been found.
Jamal’s boat was not the only one to run into trouble in recent months. Yet time after time, the Rohingya aboard those distressed boats were abandoned by governments in the region and left to die.
In many cases, the boats had satellite phones and officials therefore knew their precise locations. But even then, the UNHCR says maritime authorities in the region repeatedly ignored its pleas to rescue some of those vessels.
Governments ignore the Rohingya because they can. While multiple international laws mandate the rescue of vessels in distress, enforcement is difficult.
In the past, the region’s coastal nations hunted for boats in trouble – only to push them into other countries’ search and rescue zones, says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya crisis. But now, they rarely even bother to look.
The lucky ones are eventually towed to shore in Indonesia by local fishermen. Yet even rescue can be perilous – a Vietnamese oil company saved one boat, then promptly handed the Rohingya over to the same deadly regime in Myanmar from which they’d fled.
There is no reason why regional governments could not or cannot coordinate and rescue these boats, says John Quinley, director of human rights group Fortify Rights.
“It was a total lack of political will and extremely heartless,” he says. “The accountability and the onus really lies on everyone.”