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.”
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.”
“They get picked up and raped”
Noor was 12 when she and her family fled a military crackdown in their village in the Maungdaw district of Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017.
“Our village was burnt down, and my brother was killed, we had to flee,” said Jaan, Noor’s mother, who works at a hospital run by the charity CARE Bangladesh.
“Noor never liked it here. She always wanted to do something more, but we can’t send girls anywhere here. They get picked up and raped. I think that’s why she left with the trafficker,” said Jaan.
In the past year, the camp has become a more dangerous place, said Razia Sultana, from the Rohingya Women Welfare Society. Abductions by local gangs, sexual violence and trafficking have become more frequent, while Covid-19 lockdowns have shut down the only safe spaces for women and girls.
“After 5 p.m., there is no security presence in the camp,” Sultana said.
“(Members of militant groups) attack the houses of any woman or girl they fancy, abduct them, either forcefully marry them, or sexually assault them.”
Sultana says families are terrified of reporting this to the authorities, as they believe no action will be taken.
Any hope the refugees may have had of returning home is fading, too.
On February 1, the same military leaders accused of carrying out genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state seized control of the country. The Myanmar military claimed to have been targeting terrorists when it raided Rohingya villages in 2017, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee.
But bloodshed in recent weeks, including the shooting of civilian protesters, has exposed the brutality of the military and raised fears the country is descending into civil war.
In that environment, many women and girls are vulnerable to traffickers who promise them safety and freedom in neighboring Southeastern Asian countries like Malaysia. However, once there, many are pushed into forced marriages and domestic servitude, rights groups say.
“We have seen a number of cases of minor Rohingya girls being trafficked into forced marriages,” said John Quinley, Senior Human Rights Specialist at Fortify Rights, an NGO that works to strengthen human rights movements in Southeast Asia. “Lots of single Rohingya men in Malaysia want to marry women from Rakhine State, and they strike deals with traffickers. It’s an exploitative process.”
Even on a safe sailing, the journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia poses risks.
“I have spoken to girls who took the boat journey and talked about what happens to them in transit,” says Mahi Ramakrishnan, a Malaysia-based filmmaker and refugee rights activist. “There is sexual abuse, and the rapes happen in the view of everyone. The woman is pulled aside a few meters from the group and raped.”
No one’s countrymen
For those on Noor’s boat, time is running out.
There is no active search underway for the vessel. And even if the passengers are found alive, then comes the question of who will take them in.
All countries are bound by international law to rescue and disembark those in distress at sea. However, recent examples show some countries in southeast Asia have been unwilling to help.
In March 2020, a larger boat carrying almost 300 Rohingyas set sail from Cox’s Bazar. The passengers spent more than six months adrift at sea and were turned away by several countries before finally being accepted by Indonesia. By then, at least 30 people including women and children had died. Many surviving women said they were assaulted on board the vessel.
Noor’s boat was heading to Malaysia, but last June Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the country could no longer take in Rohingya refugees, Reuters reported. Malaysia is not party to the UN Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system regulating the status and rights of refugees, according to the UNHCR.
The Malaysian government has not responded to requests for comment about the missing boat.
Bangladeshi authorities did not respond to request for comment from CNN, but the foreign minister, A.K. Abdul Momen, told Reuters the Bangladeshi government expects India or Myanmar to accept the Rohingya refugees stranded on the boat.
The UNHCR says responsibility for the boat lies with the country first alerted to its state of distress. That would mean India.
“The state in which a boat in distress is first identified bears the primary responsibility for providing or ensuring a place of safety,” said Stubberfield, from UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. “UNHCR is deeply concerned by recent delays in rescue and disembarkation for refugees in distress at sea.”
Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the situation of Myanmar’s Rohingya population, agreed the boat fell under India’s jurisdiction. “They had the duty to disembark them,” she said. “Unfortunately, since then the boat hasn’t showed anywhere, I am so sad to say this, but it looks like they have disappeared or died at sea.”
India is not party to the UN Refugee Convention and lacks a national refugee protection structure, according to the UNHCR.
Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Rohingya refugees in India can be forcibly returned to Myanmar.
This ruling is counter to the principle of “non-refoulement” under international law, which prohibits a state from returning any person on its territory or under its jurisdiction to a country where they face persecution, according to Human Rights Watch.
For Noor’s mother, hope is fading for her daughter, and others on the boat.
“I fled with my daughter from Myanmar four years ago after my village was burnt, and today my daughter is at risk of being sent back to the same place or dying in the sea,” Jaan said.
“I don’t know what’s worse.”