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UNHCR: Urgent action needed to address dramatic rise in Rohingya deaths at sea

Briefing notes

UNHCR: Urgent action needed to address dramatic rise in Rohingya deaths at sea

23 January 2024 Also available in:
A refugee boat in the ocean

A boat that carried Rohingya refugees across the Andaman Sea is anchored offshore after the refugees disembarked at a beach in Aceh, Indonesia on 8 January 2023.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is alarmed by statistics revealing a surge in the number of desperate Rohingya refugees reportedly dying or going missing while taking risky boat journeys in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal during 2023.

Some 569 Rohingya were reported to have perished or gone missing last year in South-East Asian waters, with nearly 4,500 embarking on deadly sea journeys – a significant increase on previous years. The number reported missing or dead is the highest since 2014, when the total reached 730.   

The findings for 2023 include some shocking details. The total reported dead or missing was over 200 more than in 2022. Survivors have shared horrifying accounts of abuse and exploitation during the journey, including gender-based violence. 

Estimates show one Rohingya was reported to have died or gone missing for every eight people attempting the journey in 2023. This makes the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world.  

The majority of those attempting these journeys were children and women – some 66 per cent of those embarking on these deadly journeys. The refugees have been departing from Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, Myanmar.  

In a single deadly incident in November 2023, it is feared that some 200 Rohingya lost their lives when their boat was reported to have sunk in the Andaman Sea.  

These figures provide a chilling reminder that failure to act to save people in distress results in deaths. More and more desperate people are dying under the watch of numerous coastal States in the absence of timely rescue and disembarkation to the nearest place of safety.  

UNHCR calls on regional coastal authorities to take urgent action to prevent future tragedies. Saving lives and rescuing those in distress at sea is a humanitarian imperative and a longstanding duty under international maritime law. 

UNHCR is working with impacted States and other stakeholders, including refugees, to develop a comprehensive regional response to address these perilous journeys.

The root causes of these maritime movements must be addressed and the international community must step up to make good on pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva in December 2023. These included advancing solutions and enhancing self-reliance for Rohingya refugees to provide hope and reduce the compulsion to take dangerous boat journeys. 

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