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UN Calls for Rescue for 190 Drifting Rohingya, 180 More Feared Dead

Rohingya refugees disembarking a wooden boat in surf on a beach
File image courtesy UNICEF / Patrick Brown

Published Dec 25, 2022 9:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

Nearly 200 Rohingya refugees aboard an unseaworthy vessel are believed to be adrift at sea and governments in the region refuse to rescue them, according to a UN agency. Meanwhile, another refugee vessel is believed to have sunk with the loss of 180 lives.

Since early December, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been calling on South Asia countries to rescue and disembark some 190 refugees stranded on a boat somewhere between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal after its engines broke down.

The UN agency said the refugees, who are attempting to make the dangerous voyage of crossing the Andaman Sea from refugee camps in Bangladesh, have remained at sea for a month and are in dire conditions with insufficient food or water, without any efforts by states in the region to help them. Many are women and children, with reports of up to 20 people dying on the unseaworthy vessel during the journey.

Most of those on board are believed to be Rohingya refugees who escaped Myanmar in 2017 due to military persecution and have been living in crowded camps in Bangladesh. Attempts to cross the Andaman Sea have become the only hope for a better life mainly in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.  

UNHCR said that since the first reports of the boat being sighted in Thai waters in early December, latest unverified information indicate the adrift vessel was spotted near Indonesia and then subsequently off the coast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India. 

“This shocking ordeal and tragedy must not continue. These are human beings – men, women and children. We need to see the states in the region help save lives and not let people die,’’ said Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s Director for Asia and the Pacific.

The agency has been pushing South Asia governments to rescue the refugees and avert another disaster at sea on the basis that all states have a responsibility to rescue. The pleas have however been ignored with countries in the region determined to stop an influx of refugees escaping camps in Bangladesh, a country that is hosting about one million Myanmar refugees.

On Sunday, a second vessel carrying 57 Rohingya men landed in Indonesia's Aceh province. A third vessel carrying 180 people is missing and believed sunk. "Relatives have lost contact. Those last in touch presume all are dead," reported UNHCR. "Unconfirmed reports suggest the unseaworthy vessel had started to crack in early December before losing contact."

These are just the latest in a series of perilous voyages using unseaworthy boats, many of which have ended in catastrophe. Two weeks ago, a Vietnamese oil company vessel on its way to Myanmar rescued one sinking boat with 154 Rohingya refugees aboard. In another incident a week ago, the Sri Lankan Navy rescued a trawler in distress carrying 104 Rohingya, including numerous children, some unaccompanied.

UNHCR has issued an alert over the dramatic increase in the number of people attempting to cross the Andaman Sea from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Although the Southeast Asia waterway is one of the deadliest in the world, about 2,000 people have made the journey since January, six times more than in 2020. Tragically, about 200 people have been reported dead or missing on the journeys this year alone.