UN Appeals to Nations to Rescue Rohingya Trapped at Sea

Some Rohingya have already died at sea, while Bangladesh says its refugee camps are full and can’t take any more.

United Nations refugee agency UNHCR appealed to maritime states along the Andaman Sea on Monday to rescue a group of Rohingya in distress, while the director of a group that monitors the refugees said eight had died aboard the boat.

Also on Monday, the Bangladeshi foreign minister said his country could not take in any more Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Southeastern Bangladesh has become home to about 1 million Rohingya who fled violence in the country next-door and live in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district.

Indrika Ratwatte, director of the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said his agency had received reports on Saturday about an undetermined number of Rohingya who were on a boat in distress after they departed Cox’s Bazar about 10 days ago.

“Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration. We understand that a number of refugees have already lost their lives, and that fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours,” Ratwatte said in a news release on the UNHCR website.

“We appeal to all governments to deploy their search and rescue capacities and promptly disembark those in distress,” Ratwatte said.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, said members of her group had been in contact with the Rohingya on the boat since Saturday and had been talking to some of their relatives. She said those on the boat have a satellite phone.

“Three died on Saturday (two women and one man),” she told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service,adding that a total of six women and two men had lost their lives, citing information from witnesses on the boat.

“They also told us the boat was carrying 65 women and girls, five children under 2 years of age, and 20 men,” she said, adding that they sailed from Bangladesh on Feb. 11, but their engine broke down two days later.

“Soon after, they ran out of food and water. They were so thirsty that many drank sea water,” she said.

Lewa said her group had reached out to UNHCR, embassies, and others to push for the Indian Navy to rescue the Rohingya.

“This morning they said that Indian Navy vessels were close to their boat, observing them as they shouted for help, but doing nothing, not even providing food assistance,” she said.

Lewa said she had also contacted the media and by 3 p.m. (local time), the Indian Navy sent ships with personnel, including doctors.

“They are currently being attended to and given food and treatment, but on their boat,” Lewa said, expressing concern that the Rohingya would be barred from disembarking.

“Apparently that decision will be taken by the Indian government in Delhi, not by the navy,” she said.

Reuters news service reported that the Indian Navy did not provide details on Lewa’s comments but would issue a statement later.

‘We have taken enough’

In Bangladesh, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen called on other countries to accept Rohingya who leave Myanmar.

“The Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar is home to about 84,000 people per square kilometer. Is there such a thing anywhere in the world,” he told reporters in Dhaka. “We have taken enough.”

Last May, 279 Rohingya were taken to the Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal, after their boat was unable to land in Malaysia and was spotted adrift in Bangladesh’s territorial waters. They joined 29 Rohingya who had been taken to the island where the government built housing and other infrastructure for about 100,000 of the refugees.

Since December, the government has moved nearly 10,000 Rohingya from the camps in and around Cox’s Bazar to the island.

Maritime officials in Bangladesh and Malaysia, meanwhile, said they did not have information about the boat.

“I am not aware of any boat sailing from Teknaf to the sea in the last 10 days. We have no information in this regard,” Lt. Cmdr. Habibur Rahman told BenarNews. Rahman is staff officer for operations for the Bangladeshi coast guard’s Chittagong East Zone.

The Malaysian Coast Guard referred requests for comment to the National Task Force in charge of border security. The task force, in turn, noted that it had received and was monitoring the information but had not detected the boat in Malaysian waters.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, officials at the Maritime Security Agency (Baklama) could not be reached for comment.

Hundreds of Rohingya arrived in the country’s Aceh province last year. Nearly 300 Rohingya arrived in September 2020, the largest group to arrive in the country since 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), another U.N. agency. One of the arrivals told the IOM that she and the others had been at sea for more than seven months after leaving Bangladesh.

Last June, 99 Rohingya arrived on another boat. That same month, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told a summit of Southeast Asian nations that his country could not take any more Rohingya.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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