Many say they are only now realising the extent of the army’s crackdown on ethnic minorities including the Rohingya.
The UN refugee agency is calling for the immediate rescue of a group of Rohingya refugees after their boat broke down in the Andaman Sea leaving them adrift for days without food or water.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR says it received reports of an “unconfirmed number of Rohingya refugees aboard a vessel in distress as of the evening of Saturday 20th February”.
It urged the countries in the area to begin an immediate search.
“Saving lives must be the priority,” Indrika Ratwatte, the director of the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement.
“In line with international obligations under the law of the sea and longstanding maritime traditions, the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea should be upheld, irrespective of nationality or legal status.
“We appeal to all governments to deploy their search and rescue capacities and promptly disembark those in distress.”
The UN agency said it could not confirm the size of the group or their precise location, but said they were thought to have left Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf in Bangladesh about 10 days ago.
“Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration,” Ratwatte added. “We understand that a number [of] refugees have already lost their lives and that fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours.”
A senior Indian coast guard official confirmed to Reuters news agency that the boat has been tracked to an area off the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
At least eight people had died on the boat, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a group that monitors the Rohingya crisis.
Lewa said Indian navy vessels that were close by had provided food and water to those on the boat. “But we still don’t know what they will do afterwards,” she added.
A spokesman for India’s navy did not provide details of the situation but said a statement would be issued later.
Hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh since they were forced out of Myanmar in a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for the group who are among the world’s most persecuted peoples. And although boat journeys have declined in recent years, governments around Southeast Asia have tightened borders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 2,400 Rohingya attempted the sea crossing last year, and 200 died, according to the UN refugee agency.
“After years of limbo in Bangladesh and following the recent coup in Myanmar, Rohingya people feel they have no option but to undertake these perilous journeys,” Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner said in a statement. “With a new ‘sailing season’ already underway, thousands more could yet take to boats. Regional governments must adhere to their regional obligations to rescue and disembark people in distress at sea.”
Dozens of people were found last year in boats drifting off the Malaysian island of Langkawi, while many more came ashore with the help of local villagers in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Save the Children noted in a report last June that Rohingya were still prepared to pay traffickers to make the journey despite the risks involved.
There are currently some 102,250 Rohingya registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia but rights groups say there are many more who are undocumented.
UNHCR said it would provide humanitarian assistance and quarantine measures for those who were rescued, in line with public health protocols.
“The fact that refugees and migrants continue to undertake fatal journeys accentuates the need for immediate and collective regional response to search, rescue and disembarkation,” the agency said.
Amnesty noted that governments have made commitments under a number of declarations relating to refugees at sea including the 2010 ASEAN Declaration on search and rescue operations at sea, and the 2016 Bali Declaration. At a meeting last year of the Task Force on the Bali Process that stressed “the primacy of saving lives at sea and not endangering the life and safety of persons in responding to irregular maritime migration.”