Lost at Sea: A short animated film on Rohingya journeys  

The Rohingya are living without rights in Myanmar, without hope in Bangladesh, and at risk of arrest in Malaysia.

A young Rohingya refugee points to a picture she drew of an MSF doctor in a clinic.

Habiba, a young Rohingya refugee, points to a picture she drew of an MSF doctor in a clinic. She dreams of becoming a doctor to help her community but doesn't see any opportunity or pathway to do so. | Bangladesh 2023 © Victor Caringal/MSF

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in collaboration with Noon Films, and Presence presents "Lost at Sea", a short animated film that illustrates the journey of Muhib, a Rohingya man who risked his life to flee Myanmar on a fishing boat across the Andaman Sea.

The boat was headed for Malaysia and packed with men, women, and children. Stranded at sea for more than two weeks, Muhib witnessed 27 of his companions die. The film depicts flashbacks he had while at sea: the violence he experienced in Myanmar, the family he left behind, and the song his mother used to sing him.

"We are the Rohingya nation, we are searching for our shore. Hang on child; wherever you run, wind, water, and fire will chase you."

The song Muhib's mother sang him

“I feared for my life in Myanmar and was compelled to seek refuge in another country,” said Muhib. “The uncertainty and at times hostility of a new land is preferable to perishing in a place where I was never treated as a human being since birth. Rohingya are desperate for safety and security. We have nowhere to go. Taking a boat is like jumping in the sea without knowing the consequences. You can so easily lose your life in these unseaworthy boats [which are] unfit to make these journeys.” 

Insecurity on the rise in Rohingya camps

Despite the dangers, many feel this is their only option. “Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, and those who fled to Bangladesh, struggle to survive,” said Paul Brockmann, MSF's regional operational director. “The vast majority live in camps with severe movement restrictions, limited opportunities for employment or education, and without hope for a better future. With significant levels of violence in the Bangladesh camps and ongoing conflicts in Myanmar, the situation is forcing many Rohingya to make increasingly desperate choices such as risky sea journeys.” 

MSF provides medical and mental health care in the sprawling refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh. Since 2017, MSF has provided mental health consultations to more than 140,000 Rohingya patients there. On top of the trauma the carry from the violence that displaced them from Myanmar, many Rohingya struggle with anxiety about the future, deplorable living conditions, barriers to accessing paid work and formal education, and increasing insecurity in the camps. “Since 2021, the number of people treated in our hospitals in Bangladesh who attempted suicide has doubled,” said Brockmann.  

Violence in the camps have increased significantly since mid-2022. There has been an increase in armed clashes, killings, and abductions and MSF staff have witnessed the severe toll this has on people. In 2023, MSF treated more violence related injuries than usual. “Abductions have become common over the past 12 months,” said Brockmann. “Many individuals, particularly children, are forcibly abducted by traffickers and their families are extorted to either pay for their return to Bangladesh or to be moved to Malaysia.”

On top of the issues faced in the camps, the continued denial of citizenship in Myanmar means they are legally stateless. One of the many implications of statelessness is the inability to obtain identification documents and passports, meaning there are no safe, legal pathways for Rohingya people to seek asylum in the region. This leaves them with no other option but to take risky journeys, relying on human trafficking networks that put them at higher risk of violence, extortion, sexual assault, and even death.

“I don’t feel safe, and I don’t usually go out of my camp block—most of the time I spend at home,” said an 18-year-old who was forcibly abducted and held in Myanmar earlier. His family paid a ransom to return him to Bangladesh. “I still have physical and mental trauma. My mom brought me some medicine from the nearest pharmacy since she was not feeling safe for me to go out to see the doctor.” 

Nowhere to go

In 2023, food rations for Rohingya living in the camps were cut to only US$8 per person per month and the UN Joint Response Plan was severely underfunded, delivering only 46 percent of agreed funding in 2023. 

Due to the poor economic and security situation in the camps in Bangladesh, many families have told MSF that they feel their only option is to organize for their daughters to marry Rohingya men in Malaysia. For most, this means entrusting the safety of their daughters to human trafficking networks and the likelihood they will never see them again.  

“Life in the refugee camp was very terrible and unimaginable,” said a 19-year-old who arrived in Malaysia in 2022. “It was not safe at all, especially for women. Lots of crime was going on and many people were killed daily. I decided to leave the Bangladesh refugee camp to find a partner because I felt unsafe in the crowded camp,” she said.  

“The only difference is that there is no war here in Malaysia,” said a 17-year-old girl who arrived in Malaysia in May 2022. “I miss my parents so much. The journey is one way—I cannot visit my parents in the Bangladesh refugee camp [even] if they pass away.”

“The journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia is so difficult, some died on the boat, some got beaten by the human traffickers,” said a 30-year-old Rohingya woman who arrived in Malaysia in October 2022. “While in Malaysia, there is the risk of getting arrested by the authorities because some of us have no UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] document.” 

"The Rohingya have nowhere to go,” said Brockmann. “They are not safe or given basic human rights anywhere in the region. It is crucial that the international community recognize the severity of the Rohingya refugee crisis and work toward solutions that respect their rights and dignity from now until they can eventually return to Myanmar. Rohingya deserve to live in safety, with access to essential services and opportunities. We are treating people for illnesses, but without a change in their living conditions and ongoing containment, there is no possible cure for their experiences."

“Lost at Sea” was awarded Best International Short Film at the Heroes International Film Festival in Rome, Italy, and the 4th Chema Castiello Award for the best short film with social relevance and remarkable utility in classrooms for a younger audience at the Festival for Social Cinema and Human Rights in Asturias, Spain. “Lost At Sea" is a collaboration between MSF, Richard Swarbrick of Presence who directed the animation team, and Noon Films, using the medium of animation to amplify the voices of those who have endured unimaginable hardships.