Families of Passengers on Missing Rohingya Refugee Boat Keep Hopes Alive

The United Nations refugee agency said Sunday in a statement that about 180 Rohingya were feared to have drowned at sea after their boat left Bangladesh for Malaysia earlier this month.

When a boat carrying 174 Rohingya washed ashore Monday in Indonesia, many people speculated that they were the ones the refugee agency had assumed to have drowned.

However, some Rohingya in Bangladesh and Malaysia, who managed to speak to the refugees rescued Monday, confirmed that those 174 were not related to the 180 refugees still missing and feared dead.

Several people in Malaysia and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — where more than 1 million Rohingya have been living in squalid, congested camps since fleeing violence in Myanmar — told VOA on Friday that their relatives who had left Bangladesh by boat on December 2 bound for Malaysia, were missing at sea, and that about 180 people were onboard.

Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, a Rohingya activist in Cox’s Bazar, told VOA that on Tuesday he spoke to his sister — who was one of the 174 refugees rescued Monday in Indonesia — by phone and verified that the boat that sailed out of Bangladesh on December 2 with about 180 people was still missing.

“The boat that my sister boarded departed Bangladesh on November 25, with around 200 people on board, bound for Malaysia. Its engine broke down after a few days. It drifted for weeks, and food and water stock on the boat ran out before it washed ashore in Indonesia Monday. However, we stayed in touch with the boat via its satellite phone until it came close to Indonesia,” Khan said.

“Certainly, the boat that was rescued in Indonesia Monday is not the one that left Bangladesh on December 2.”

Khan added that his sister, a widow, boarded the boat for Malaysia with her 5-year-old daughter.

“My sister said that at least 25 people in her boat died after the boat’s engine broke down on December 4, and it drifted for weeks.”

Khan described his sister’s ordeal at sea, saying that when their boat was drifting and they had run out of food and water, a Thai navy boat appeared at some distance. Around 20 men from the boat jumped into the sea and tried to swim closer to the navy boat, hoping to get some food and water, but did not receive any relief. The swimmers then were swept away by a strong current and could not return to their boat.

“She also said that for 13 days they were without food and water before landing in Indonesia, and some had died because of starving and drinking seawater.”

Relatives of those onboard the missing boat said that they had lost contact December 8 and could not hope that the passengers were still alive.

Mohammad Rofik, a Rohingya refugee who landed in Malaysia from Bangladesh in March, said that his wife, Ayesha Khatoon, and their two daughters, ages 5 and 3, were on the missing boat.

“After the boat left Bangladesh on December 2, almost every day my brother-in-law or I called up the satellite phone of the boatman to check if everything was all right with the boat and my family. But from December 8, neither my brother-in-law nor I have succeeded to reach the phone. Many other people who have their relatives on that boat also told us that since December 8, they have failed to get access to the phone of the boatman,” Rofik told VOA.

“My daughters were missing me very much. With my wife and daughters, I dreamed of setting up a nice home in Malaysia. So, I told them to come to Malaysia and join me here.”

Rashidullah, a Rohingya refugee in Cox’s Bazar who uses only one name, said that his 16-year-old daughter, Umme Salima, was on the missing boat.

“I am very poor, and I have seven daughters who are unmarried. Salima was the eldest among them. I put her on the boat with the hope that any Rohingya man in Malaysia would marry her. Now my daughter is missing, and many said that along with all others on the boat, she drowned in the sea,” Rashidullah told VOA.

Some Rohingya, however, insist that it is too early to be certain that all the passengers on the missing boat are dead.

“The boat that washed ashore in Indonesia took 31 days to reach Indonesia from Bangladesh. The boat that is missing left Bangladesh 25 days ago. We should wait for some more days or weeks to be sure that the people are no more,” Mohammad Hussain, a Rohingya community leader in Cox’s Bazar, told VOA Tuesday.

“I, too, do not believe as yet that my daughters and wife are dead,” Rofik, in Malaysia, said. If Allah wants, he can still safely return my children and wife to me, presenting a miracle.”

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