UN calls for urgent rescue of drifting boat carrying 90 Rohingya refugees as passengers begin to die

Ben Farmer
·3 min read
FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2018, file photo, Rohingya refugees bathe at a hand water pump at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, where they have been living after feeing violence in Myanmar. A fire in a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, has destroyed hundreds of homes. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File) Image title: Bangladesh Rohingya
FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2018, file photo, Rohingya refugees bathe at a hand water pump at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, where they have been living after feeing violence in Myanmar. A fire in a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, has destroyed hundreds of homes. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File) Image title: Bangladesh Rohingya

The United Nations and campaign groups have called for the immediate rescue of a drifting boat carrying scores of Rohingya refugees, after several died from starvation and dehydration.

At least eight people died onboard over the weekend, passengers have told their relatives by phone, with others said to be badly ill and also at risk of death.

The Indian coastguard reached the boat in the Andaman Sea on Monday afternoon and gave some food and water, but aid groups said the passengers needed to be disembarked to be treated.

Western governments including Britain and the US are said to be appealing for Delhi to let the refugees land.

“We appreciate the efforts of the Indian coast guard in deploying their search and rescue team and addressing refugees’ immediate needs,” a spokeswoman for the UN's high commissioner for refugees told the Telegraph.

“Given that the refugees are still adrift at sea, immediate disembarkation is the critical next step. No-one can survive for long in these conditions, as we have seen time and time again in recent years. Saving lives must be the priority.”

The boat carrying 90 passengers set off from Bangladesh on February 11, but its engine cut out soon after. The boat has no anchor and has been drifting in only occasional touch with relatives back home.

Four men and four women have died, according to the Delhi-based Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. The boat is thought to be around 40 miles north of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Ali Johar, of the Delhi-based Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, said he had been in contact with the boat via relatives until Monday, but nothing had been heard since then.

He said that in the past Sri Lanka had rescued several such boats, but this was thought to be the the first time one had approached Indian territory.

More than 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 after what UN investigators said was a brutal military campaign pursued with “genocidal intent” in their home in Rakhine state. They largely remain in huge refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a group that monitors the Rohingya crisis, said those on board were in dire condition. They were so desperate in recent phone calls that they were no longer afraid of calling for help from the Myanmar forces.

Ms Lewa said: “They were so desperate that they said, 'If you need to contact the Myanmar Navy please do, we don’t care, we will be arrested but then we will be alive hopefully.'

She went on: “I think that India should disembark these people, especially in the condition that they are and of course, provide proper medical assistance. I understand that if someone is severely dehydrated they cannot just get a drip on a boat, they need to have proper hospital attention.”

AK Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, told the Telegraph that his country “cannot afford” to take back the refugees, who were currently located some 1,700km away.

“Have we taken the global responsibility of rescuing all the boat people of the world? They are not our nationals, they are Burmese,” he said.

“Already our Cox's Bazar camps are loaded with persecuted people of Myanmar, we are sheltering nearly 84,000 people per sq. mile, the highest density in the world,” he added.

“Do you want them to die of congestion and suffocation? If not, ask the leaders of the world and specifically, those countries that have density of population per sq mile in two digits, not thousands and have relatively better economy.”