NEW YORK: The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Monday called for urgent efforts to locate a missing vessel carrying Rohingya refugees that has been adrift on the Andaman Sea for more than a week.
The number of people on board is uncertain, as is the ship’s current location. The last contact with it was a distress call received on Saturday night, local time. This indicated that food and water ran out several days ago and many people are seriously ill. It is feared that a number have already died.
Indrika Ratwatte, director of the UNHCR’s Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said he has alerted local maritime authorities that the vessel might be in their waters and appealed for their immediate assistance to save lives.
“Many (of those on board) are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration,” he added. “We understand (that) fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours.”
The Andaman Sea is part of the northeastern Indian Ocean, bounded by the coastlines of Myanmar and Thailand. It lies to the southeast of the Bay of Bengal and east of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Ratwatte called on countries in the area to immediately deploy search and rescue vessels and to prioritize efforts to save the lives of the refugees.
“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”, he said. He also reiterated UNHCR’s readiness to provide humanitarian aid and assistance with quarantine procedures.
According to UNHCR, refugees attempting to cross the seas of Southeast Asia are three times more likely to die than those in the Mediterranean, due largely to mistreatment by smugglers and the risk of disease on the boats.
“The fact that refugees and migrants continue to undertake fatal journeys accentuates the need for an immediate and collective regional response to search, rescue and disembarkation,” Ratwatte said.
The Rohingya, an ethnic minority, have endured decades of abuse in Myanmar, beginning in the 1970s when hundreds of thousands sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. An additional 250,000 fled after the uprising in Myanmar 1989 and the resulting military crackdown.
Thousands of them returned to Rakhine State in 1992 when Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed a repatriation deal. The latest Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh began in August 2017 following systematic attacks by Myanmar’s military, which senior UN officials have said amount to ethnic cleansing.