Hundreds or even thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar may have died at sea this year, according to a new report by Amnesty International, which says the number of those who have died attempting the treacherous boat journey to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia is "much higher" than U.N. estimates.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has estimated that 370 refugees have died this year in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in search of safety and a better life. But Amnesty International said in a press release that "hundreds — if not thousands — of people remain unaccounted for, and may have died during their journeys or have been sold for forced labor."
The human rights organization said that it believes the number of Rohingya refugees deaths is "much higher" than the UNHCR figures, based on testimony from eyewitnesses who said they saw dozens of large boats full of refugees and migrants in similar circumstances — despite only five boats arriving in Indonesia and Malaysia, according to Amnesty's U.N. sources.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group living in Myanmar, which has a Buddhist majority. Although Rohingya families have lived in the country for generations, they were stripped of citizenship in the 1980s and are viewed by authorities in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. In recent years, they have been subjected to anti-Rohingya propaganda and violence.
UNHCR has said that since 2014 more than 1,100 refugees who have departed by sea from Bangladesh or Myanmar have died, and an additional 1,000 people — who were thought to be at sea in May of this year — remain unaccounted for. The majority of the refugees are believed to be Rohingya, but also include many Bangladeshis.
Boat crews abandoned thousands of people in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in May, after a trafficking crackdown by Thai authorities. The crackdown coincided with the discovery of several mass graves, containing bodies believed to be migrants, along the Malaysia-Thailand border.
Several Rohingya interviewed by Amnesty for its report detailed abuses they had witnessed and faced while at sea.
In one such incident, a 20-year-old Rohingya man, who said he spent eight months on a ship anchored off the coast of Thailand, said he was beaten with plastic pipes with metal inside until his family wired a $1,700 ransom payment demanded by traffickers. He was then transferred to another ship and was eventually taken to Indonesia.
In another case, a 15-year-old girl said traffickers demanded a $1,700 payment to secure her release from a large boat, where she said she had been frequently beaten. The girl told Amnesty that the boat crew called her father, who was at a refugee camp in Bangladesh, and made him listen to her crying as they beat her while demanding the ransom payment.
Other witnesses told Amnesty that people who became sick or were unable to pay a ransom were killed.
While Indonesia and Malaysia have allowed asylum-seekers to stay until May 2016, Amnesty has called on the governments to do more, and for international agencies to take "coordinated action against human trafficking in a way that does not put people's lives or human rights at risk."