The horrific results of trying to seek for a better life: 70 Muslim Rohingya refugees missing or dead due to capsized refugee boat on the coast of Indonesia

A boat carrying Rohingyas from Myanmar sank, leaving 75 helpless, causing 742,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh, leading to human trafficking and rights violations.

The horrific results of trying to seek for a better life: 70 Muslim Rohingya refugees missing or dead due to capsized refugee boat on the coast of Indonesia
A capsized boat in the sea, by Pok Rie via Pexels, 2021/November 9th.


Pauliina Majasaari

East Asia Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.


A refugee boat carrying Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar was making its way from Bangladesh to Indonesia, when it sank 22 km from the coast of Indonesia. Originally carrying about 150 refugees, 75 of them survived while the remaining 70 people are feared to be missing or dead. The captain and four other crew members abandoned the sinking boat and left the refugees helpless in the ocean. Indonesian fishermen who found the sinking boat started rescuing passengers and alarmed the Indonesian officials, who later sent an Indonesian search and rescue ship to rescue the Rohingya refugees.

For decades the Rohingya ethnic minority from Myanmar have faced persecution, discrimination, violence and multiple human rights violations conducted by the Myanmar military. The crisis reached a breaking point in August 2017, when violence struck the Rakhine State, the home of the Rohingya ethnic minority, forcing more than 742,000 people to flee to Bangladesh, with present-day numbers reaching over a million. The refugee camps in Bangladesh are vastly overcrowded, with horrific conditions and severe restrictions on their human rights, such as food, security, education and work opportunities, resulting in Rohingya refugees attempting to access other countries, such as Indonesia. However, the journey from Bangladesh to Indonesia encompasses a 1,800 kilometre route by sea, which is very risky for the lives of  the refugees.[viii] The aforementioned incident of the sinking refugee boat showcases the grave risks that the refugees must face when trying to find a better life for themselves. An additional difficulty arises from the fact that Indonesia is not a party to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and thereby is not obliged to accept Rohingya refugees on its territory, however they have been providing temporary shelter for the arriving Rohingya refugees.


According to article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), every state has an obligation to require vessels flying their flag to save the life and rescue persons in distress at sea, and coastal states are obliged to conduct effective search and rescue missions at sea. The same obligation is well established under international customary law, which showcases the utmost importance of protecting the inherent right to life and survival of every person, particularly at sea.The right to life is enshrined in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is a non-binding document, but many of its provisions hold customary law status, particularly the protection of every person’s life. As the right to life is also enshrined within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Human Right Committee has interpreted the right to include that the obligation of states to respect and ensure the right to life extends to reasonably foreseeable threats and life-threatening situations that can result in the loss of life. Additionally, states must ensure that the right to life of a person is protected from non-state actors’ conduct.[xiv]


Indonesia has fulfilled its obligations under the UNCLOS, as the Indonesian fishermen started rescuing the Rohingya refugees found in distress at sea within the coastal line of Indonesia, and the Indonesian authorities were quick to send a search and rescue service to aid and rescue the Rohingya refugees. However, there are concerns that Bangladesh is indirectly violating the right to life by refusing to provide basic rights of the Rohingya refugees residing in the refugee camps, which is forcing them to make dangerous journeys across vast waters in search of a better life. The journeys Rohingya refugees are forced to make can therefore lead to the loss of life. Furthermore, Bangladesh has expressed it is aware that there are human traffickers within the refugee camps in Cox Bazar and that these human traffickers are using the Rohingya refugees’ vulnerability to lure them on those life-threatening boat journeys across the vast sea. There are therefore reasonable concerns that Bangladesh is not protecting the Rohingya refugees from life threatening situations nor from non-state actors who can put their life in danger.


Thereby Bangladesh is urged by the international community to start respecting the rights of the Rohingya ethnic minority and prevent situations where the lives of Rohingya people are at grave risk. It is critical that Bangladesh complies with their international obligations of respecting the inherent right to life as set under UDHR. After all, in case the right to life is not respected, a person cannot enjoy any other human rights that they are entitled to.

Sources and further reading:


‘Amid ‘Humanitarian and Human Rights Nightmare’ in Myanmar, Secretary-General Urges Full Access for Aid, Safe Return of Displaced Rohingya, End to Military Operations’ UN (28 September 2017) <> accessed 3 May 2024.


Arafatul Islma, ‘Bangladesh: Why are Rohingya refugees fleeing to Indonesia?’ DW (29 November 2023) <> accessed 2 May 2024.


‘Future Bleak for Rohingya in Bangladesh, Myanmar’ Human Rights Watch (20 August 2023) <> accessed 2 May 2024.


Human Rights Committee, General comment No. 36: Article 6: right to life UN Doc CCPR/C/GC/36.


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR)


Irini Papanicolopulu, ‘The duty to rescue at sea, in peacetime and in war: A general overview’ (2016) 98  International Review of the Red Cross 491.


Kaamil Ahmed and Verena Hölzl, ‘Death,abuse and torture: traffickers hold fleeing Rohingya to a ransom up to £3,000 a time’ The Guardian (5 March 2024) <> accessed 3 May 2024.


Reza Saifullah and Edna Tarigan, ‘Bodies of 3 Rohingya refugees are found dead as Indonesia ends rescue for capsized boat’ (Independent, 24 March 2024) <> accessed 2 May 2024.


 Reza Saifullah and Edna Tarigan, ‘UN agencies fear about 70 missing or dead from capsized Rohingya refugee boat’ Independent (22 March 2024)  <> accessed 2 May 2024.


‘Rohingya Refugee Crisis Explained’ USA for UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency (23 August 2023) <> accessed 2 May 2024.


United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,10 December 1982 (entered into force 16 November 1994) 1833 UNTS 3.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR).