Desperate call for help as 160 Rohingya stranded at sea in escape from Bangladesh

Three people have died on board boat that has been adrift for weeks

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Rohingya refugees stranded for three weeks at sea without food and water have issued desperate calls for rescue.

The boat carrying 160 people, including women and children, is adrift in the Andaman Sea in South-east Asia after its engine malfunctioned days after they began the dangerous journey from Bangladesh.

Some have already died of hunger and dehydration, passengers told their families.

Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, 28, who lives in Bangladesh, told The National.

“My sister Hatemonesa and her five-year old daughter Umme Salima are in the boat. They have nothing to eat. There is not even water to drink. People are dying.

"Her elder daughter, who is seven, is with my mother here in Bangladesh. She wanted a better future for her kids and got on board the boat, which was suicidal.

“Their life is in danger now. We are very worried. Three people, including children, have already died on the boat. Nobody will survive if we don’t disembark them urgently."

Hatemonesa and her five-year old daughter Umme Salima are on board the vessel. Photo: Mohammed Rezuwan Khan

He said he had spoken to them by satellite phone two days ago.

The small boat, which has no safety equipment on board, is believed to have left Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh for Malaysia on November 26. The boat has drifted hundreds of kilometres into the Indian Ocean after engine failure.

In a telephone conversation recorded by Mr Rezuwan and shared with The National, a victim on board said many passengers have not eaten anything for more than a week. “We are starving. Three people have died.”

At least five boats carrying Rohingya refugees have left Bangladesh in the past two months, according to unverified reports by advocacy groups. Those desperate to escape to a better life are each paying smugglers between $3,000 and $5,000.

The latest report surfaced a day after 106 Rohingya refugees were rescued off the Sri Lankan coast on Sunday. The boat in which they were travelling was reportedly heading from Myanmar to Indonesia.

Last week, another group of Rohingya, who had been drifting in a boat on the Andaman Sea off the Thai coast, were rescued by a Vietnamese oil service ship. The refugees were handed over to the Myanmar military government.

Bangladesh hosts nearly 1.2 million Rohingya refugees, an ethnic Muslim minority that fled Myanmar in 2017 to escape persecution and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the military.

Refugees live in overcrowded camps in Kutupalong, Nayapara and Hakimpara, with limited access to aid and no opportunities for education or employment. Efforts to repatriate them to Myanmar are in limbo and many refugees are risking the high seas out of desperation to escape the difficult living conditions in the camps.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged countries around the Andaman to rescue the stranded boat, but none have responded to date. Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesman for Asia, said nations were being urged “in the name of humanity” to help the stranded refugees.

“It is a risky, dangerous journey," he said. "We know that women and children are on board. The immediate priority is to save lives.

“Our appeal is to disembark them immediately. Refugees need to be looked after.”

A Bangladeshi man helps Rohingya Muslim refugees to disembark from a boat on the Bangladeshi shoreline of the Naf river. AFP

Mr Baloch said more and more Rohingya refugees were undertaking the perilous journey in the hope of reaching countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

“At least 119 people are feared dead or missing in the sea this year alone,” he said.

“There is a lot of desperation. And human traffickers are exploiting the humanitarian situation.”

According to the UNHCR, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people attempting the crossings of the Andaman Sea this year.

About 1,920 Rohingya travelled by sea from Myanmar and Bangladesh throughout 2022, compared to 287 refugees last year, said the refugee agency.

Updated: December 20, 2022, 4:31 PM