Activists appeal for rescue of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in leaking boat

Activists have called for urgent assistance to rescue 160 Rohingya refugees, including young children, who they say are stranded at sea on a damaged boat and have been without food or water for days.

The boat, which activists say is near Malaysian waters, is believed to have left on 25 November from Bangladesh, where almost 1 million Rohingya live in squalid and cramped refugee camps.

Every year, when the rainy season ends, many Rohingya attempt the treacherous journey across the Andaman Sea, hoping to reach predominately Muslim Malaysia or Indonesia. The number doing so this year has increased dramatically as a result of the deteriorating situation in the Bangladesh refugee camps and in Myanmar, where the military seized power last year.

Chris Lewa, director of rights group the Arakan Project, which has interviewed the families of those onboard, said the boat was leaking and that people did not have water or food. There had been inaction from governments in the region, she said: “No one wants to take any responsibility.”

Lewa added that the boat was in Malaysia’s search and rescue region, according to information sent by those onboard on Thursday afternoon.

“We have information about where it was. It is lucky this boat has a satphone” she said, adding that despite this, no help had been given.

Lilianne Fan, chair of the Rohingya working group at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, who has consulted relatives of those onboard, said a family member last had contact with the boat at 4pm Kuala Lumpur time (8am GMT) on Friday, and that the boat had yet to receive help at that point.

“They say the conditions are extremely dire; people have not had food or water. It’s really a very desperate situation,” she said.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a statement on Saturday calling on Malaysia to urgently allow the safe disembarkation of the refugees, adding: “While MSF has no information about the specific health needs of people on the boat, it is very likely that provision of life-saving medical assistance will be required as deaths have been reported.”

The Malaysian government has not yet responded to a request for comment.

At least four boats left Bangladesh between 25 and 27 November, according to Lewa. It was not possible for the Guardian to confirm this.

The number of boats at sea has contributed to confusion over their status and which regional government will lead rescue efforts. On Friday, a Vietnamese vessel reportedly rescued 154 Rohingya from a damaged boat in the Andaman Sea and handed them over to the Myanmar military. It is feared those onboard will face imprisonment and persecution at the hands of the military, which is accused of genocide against the minority.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) recently issued an alert over a “dramatic increase” in the number of people attempting to make the perilous crossing across the Andaman sea. So far this year, 119 people have been reported dead or missing trying to do so, according to the UNHCR.

It is feared that the worsening situation in the Bangladesh camps and in Myanmar has driven more people to take the risk. “They feel the Bangladesh situation is getting worse. There [are] a lot of killings, abduction and violence, gang violence in the refugee camp,” said Lewa.

The 2021 military coup in Myanmar means that the prospect of repatriation is even more remote, she added.

Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a south-east Asia researcher for Amnesty International, said swift action was needed.

“Regional governments must urgently coordinate and cooperate on search and rescue operations. They must attempt to locate any boats in distress and ensure the people onboard are allowed to disembark safely and receive proper medical support, food and water,” Chhoa-Howard said in a statement on Friday.

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