A deadly crossing
For thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar, salvation is a fishing boat. Many are overloaded and the journey through storms is dangerous. Nearly 200 people have died in accidents since the refugee exodus began in late August. Reuters takes a closer look at these desperate crossings.
NOVEMBER 3, 2017
A makeshift fleet of wooden boats ferries refugees across the Naf River that forms a natural border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Others cross the Bay of Bengal for landings at Shah Porir Dwip, a village at the river’s mouth.
One of the more distinctive vessels is the “moon boat”. Its curved keel, high bow and stern give the boat a unique half-moon shape. In an area with few harbours, fishermen must operate the boats from the beach. “The special shape of moon boats makes them excellent for managing breaking waves close to the beach, but they are unstable and uncomfortable in a rolling sea,” said Yves Marre, a boat builder and specialist in traditional Bangladeshi boats.
The boats are powered by a Chinese-made diesel engine capable of 16-22 horsepower. Made by traditional carpenters using local “shiuri” wood, a typical moon boat is 8 metres long and weighs less than 4 tonnes. It has a crew of 4-5 fishermen. The boats can become unstable if carrying up to 25 passengers.
Larger fishing trawlers, ranging between 15-18 metres in length, are loaded with up to 100 refugees. Smaller craft such as the dinghy-like “Kusha” are used on smaller sections of the river.
The crossing comes at a price. The cost for one adult can be between 2,000 taka ($24) and 10,000 taka ($120) depending on the journey. Refugees with no cash pay with gold rings, bracelets or other valuables. Rohingya living abroad use mobile apps to pay boatmen to ferry their relatives. Faith-based groups and offshore donors have also paid for boat trips.
Boat operators told Reuters they see nothing wrong with getting paid to help refugees. Bangladesh authorities accuse the boatmen of trafficking and try to stem the trade by destroying boats and jailing operators. A mobile court in the Cox’s Bazar area has given 150 boatmen sentences of 2-6 months.
There have been 28 accidents and 196 confirmed deaths since late August, according to data from the Bangladesh police and U.N. migration agency. Many more refugees are still missing.
“My family died”
On the night of Oct 8, Sayed Hossain and his family climbed into a fishing boat destined for the southern tip of Bangladesh. They were among 60 refugees in a boat that normally carries 20 people.
Hossain, 30, said his village in Myanmar was burned in the violence and his family fled to the coast in hopes of reaching safety in Bangladesh. The seven – Hossain and his wife, three children, his mother and father-in-law, waited for 10 days to get a boat.
When the vessel arrived, the refugees paid about $30 per person for what they thought would be a short journey to Shah Porir Dwip, survivors told the International Organization for Migration.
They sailed under the cover of darkness to avoid patrols. As the boat neared the coast of Bangladesh, it “was swamped by high waves and winds in a sudden monsoon storm,” the IOM said.
Hossain’s entire family was among the 16 bodies found later. Another 26 refugees are still missing.
“I survived alone,” he told Reuters a day after the tragedy as the bodies were prepared for burial. “We faced so many difficulties, for food and survival. We came here to save our lives.”
The deadliest day
On Sept 28, a boat carrying 80 refugees capsized near the Bangladesh coast after a harrowing journey at sea. At least 23 people died and 40 remain missing. The 17 survivors included members of three families who recounted their experience.
The boat left Gorgondia beach on the Myanmar side at around 10 pm local time, survivors said. The trip to Shah Porir Dwip normally takes an hour or two but they sailed for hours in the darkness. The boat engine died and sputtered to life several times. By early morning the refugees feared they were lost. There was little food or water on the boat. Some refugees became ill and vomited in the rough seas. Children were crying. “We are all going to die,” Rashida, one of the survivors, said to herself.
By late afternoon, the crew prepared to make a run for shore at Inani Beach, 50 km from their original destination. Spirits improved among the refugees when they finally saw land. They watched the crew cut ropes and ready floats for themselves. Then as the boat headed for the beach, it made a sudden turn and flipped over. The crew jumped off and disappeared.
Abul Kalam family
Abul Kalam, 45, and his family were tossed into the churning water after the boat overturned. His oldest daughter, Rashida, could swim but a large wave knocked her seven-month-old son from her arms and into the water. When she reached the beach, someone brought her the child’s dead body. “I cried and cried,” she said. Abul Kalam’s grandson, wife and two daughters were buried near the beach.
A day after the tragedy, Suna and Lalu Miya identified the bodies of their family members and took them away to be buried in a mass grave near the beach. Relatives tended to the infant bodies covered in cloth. Hands reached out to touch the children. Both men cried. Suna Miya bent over one of his daughters to cradle her head. He kissed her goodbye.