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Desperate Rohingyas flee to Bangladesh on flimsy rafts


Rohingya refugees are resorting to increasingly desperate measures such as makeshift rafts to cross the Naf River to Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

UNHCR is concerned at the growing number of people resorting to desperate means to flee Myanmar.

More than 30 makeshift rafts carrying over 1,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh in the past 10 days and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says it is concerned at the growing number of people resorting to desperate means to flee Myanmar.

Unable to pay to cross the Naf River, which forms the border, refugees were building rafts from whatever materials they could find, such as bamboo poles and jerrycans tied together with rope and covered with plastic sheets, UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing at the Palais des Nations on Friday.

“More than 200 Rohingya refugees are known to have drowned in shipwrecks and boat incidents since the start of the crisis on 25 August,” Spindler said. “Recent arrivals told us they had been waiting for more than a month in desperate conditions on Myanmar’s shores. Food and water are said to be running low.”

An estimated 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August.

Spindler said that, despite efforts to provide more aid and services, overcrowding and difficult living conditions in the camps and makeshift sites increased health, sanitation and fire risks, as well as violence and trafficking.

“There is an urgent need for additional land and more space for shelters and infrastructure to provide life-saving services and aid including water points, latrines, bathing areas, distribution points, child safe and friendly spaces, safe spaces for women and girls, community centres, etcetera,” he added.

So far, UNHCR has delivered hundreds of thousands of aid items including tents, plastic sheeting, blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, buckets and jerrycans.
Speaking to UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, some 70 families who arrived this week said they fled extortion and harassment in Buthidaung, in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

One man said uniformed men threatened to seize their belongings. “My uncle and my grandfather rejected their orders to share their belongings, so they were detained,” he said. “My family and I fled, so we did not end up in jail.”

They walked through a hilly area to reach Dong Khali Chor island from where they could sail to Bangladesh. During the journey, they were stopped at a military checkpoint. “They took everything. We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs,” the man added.

“I am here because I want to have a shelter and I want to sleep peacefully.”

Those who reached the island faced a long wait. Sidiq Ahmad said he and his family of seven were stranded there for more than 30 days, unable to afford the boat fare to Bangladesh. As the demand for boats has increased, boatmen have raised prices to as high as 10,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$120) per person.

Food and water were running low, so Sidiq and seven other men decided to build a raft of bamboo and plastic jerrycans.

“We decided to leave at night because the tide was high, so we could reach Bangladesh faster and avoid the sun in the day time,” said Sidiq, 37, who arrived with his wife and five children aged one to 12. The raft carried 34 people, more than half of them children.

Paddling with plates attached to bamboo sticks, it took them four hours to cross the three-kilometre-wide river to reach Bangladesh. At least 130 Rohingya refugees are known to have died at sea during the perilous journey.

When they arrived in Bangladesh, Sidiq’s group collapsed from fatigue and hunger. They were found sleeping in the shade of a boat near Shahporir Dwip, Cox’s Bazar. Eventually they were taken to a transit centre in Sabrang, where they were given water and hot food.

“I am here because I want to have a shelter and I want to sleep peacefully,” said Sidiq.


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