She fled home to escape violence. Now she’s been lost at sea for two months

She fled home to escape violence. Now she’s been lost at sea for two months

Noor Kayas wanted more from life than was possible in a crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh.
(Payperlez)Noor Kayas fled the refugee camp without telling anyone at home.

At sea the next morning, the teenager used a satellite phone to call her mother, Gule Jaan, 43, to say she was heading for Malaysia on a small wooden boat, packed with 87 Rohingya refugees, including 65 women and girls.

Some were fleeing what their families say is the increased risk of sexual assault and rape during the pandemic in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, home to more than 1 million displaced people.

The 16-year-old asked her mother to pay 40,000 taka ($470) to the trafficker for her passage to Malaysia, where she hoped to have a better life. Her mother was still arranging the payment when families of other passengers on board received a call to say the boat’s engine had failed.

They had been at sea for just five days. Now, more than two months later, the boat is missing.

“Please, can someone let me know if my daughter is alive or dead?” said Jaan. “She is a good girl and was lured by the trafficker to go on the boat.”

Gule Jaan worries for her daughter who boarded a boat bound for Malaysia on February 11. Gule Jaan worries for her daughter who boarded a boat bound for Malaysia on February 11.
The passengers’ families and rights groups are asking why more isn’t being done to save the lives of those on board.

They say Indian authorities were alerted to the passengers’ desperate cries for help on February 20, but took 48 hours to respond with medicines, food and water.

While they waited, nine people died, the families said.

Indian authorities said they last delivered aid to the boat in mid-March, and have not responded to requests for more information on their dealings with the vessel after that date. They did not allow anyone to disembark.

The boat’s disappearance is compounding the misery of families in Cox’s Bazar, where lax security is allowing militants to enter the camps at night to attack women and girls, according to rights groups.

Over the past year, the UNHCR said more women and girls have boarded rickety vessels to flee sexual violence within the camps — a trend likely to continue as the coup across the border in Myanmar makes returning home an even more distant prospect.

The refugees’ voyage began in the early hours of February 11 from the shores of Teknaf in Bangladesh, where most on board had wound up after fleeing a violent crackdown by Myanmar’s military in 2017.

Three traffickers were also on board, according to family members who spoke with the passengers.

The boat had enough supplies for a week, the time it would usually take to travel from Teknaf to Malaysia, they said.

Bigger boats often used for this type of trip have desalination machines to convert salt water to drinking water. But this boat was smaller, and did not have such a machine, according to the passengers’ families.

After the boat’s engine stopped on February 16, food and water supplies ran low. Over the next few days, the boat drifted closer to Indian waters.

On the morning of February 20, Shah Alam, a 23-year-old ethnic Rohingya Muslim refugee, called his brother in Cox’s Bazar. He said the boat was in the Bay of Bengal and there wasn’t anything to drink. “Brother, where can I get water to drink?” he asked.

Passengers also called non-profit organizations and journalists for help.

Their families said the GPS coordinates sent from the satellite phone placed the boat a few nautical miles from Indian Coast Guard headquarters in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal.

Several NGOs immediately informed authorities in India and Bangladesh, including the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and Indian Coast Guard.

The next day, on February 21, a ship with Indian flags passed the boat, but did not stop, the passengers told their families via satellite phone.

The same evening, two helicopters hovered near the boat, close enough for passengers to read the writing on the side. “INDIA,” it said.

A few hours later after the helicopters departed, two Indian Coast Guard ships pulled up near the boat. But the passengers told their families the ships didn’t make contact with them or offer any food or water.

“People jumped into the sea and they drank salty water (out of desperation), and they died here … many have died here,” said Shah Alam, according to audio recordings of calls made on February 21 heard by CNN.

Nine people died that day, the passengers told their families, including a man who disappeared beneath the waves after jumping overboard to chase the Indian Coast Guard vessel as it moved away.

The next day, on February 22, Indian Coast Guard ships returned with food and medicine.

“Everyone was very happy and relieved that they were being given food and water,” said Alam’s brother Robi Alam, a Rohingya refugee in Cox’s Bazar.

However, no one was allowed to disembark, the refugees told their families via satellite phone.

“That was the last time I spoke to my brother,” Robi Alam said. That day, the satellite phone went dead.

The Indian Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment.

An Indian government official said India provided assistance to the boat until mid-March, and did not specify why that assistance stopped.

“I don’t know where they are right now,” said Col. V.K.S Tomar, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) at India’s Ministry of External Affairs for the Bangladesh and Myanmar division. “All I know is that we were providing them with food and water on the boat until mid-March, but they were not allowed to disembark from the boat until then.”

He would not comment on why the passengers were not allowed to disembark.

The UNHCR said the passengers need urgent help.

“With refugees and asylum seekers having been at sea for over two months now, disembarkation is absolutely critical to saving lives,” said Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. “No one can survive for long in these conditions.”

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