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Rohingya children have died as stranded refugees face starvation in the Bay of Bengal, families say


Many Rohingya are feared to have died at sea more than three weeks after their boat ran aground off the coast of India, where at least 160 people remain on board on the brink of starvation, family members and officials said. United Nations refugee agency.

Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and 5-year-old niece are on the ship, told CNN on Wednesday that two children and a woman had died, adding that those still alive have “no water, food or medicine”.

“We are extremely worried and want them to be rescued. It’s getting harder and harder for them to survive,” Khan said, adding that he last spoke to the boat’s captain on Sunday.

The boat, currently near the Indian Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, is said to have been adrift since late November when its engine died.

He is believed to have headed to Malaysia from Bangladesh, where around 1 million Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, live in refugee camps after fleeing violence in their native Burma.

CNN cannot independently verify if any deaths have occurred on the boat. A United Nations spokesperson said there were “unverified reports suggesting that at least 20 people may already have died during this shocking ordeal”.

Babar Baloch, Asia spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), urged India and Sri Lanka to help rescue those on board.

“Quick action is needed to save lives and prevent further deaths,” Baloch said. “We reiterate our warning that inaction by states to save lives leads to more human misery and tragedy every day.”

A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers also urged neighboring countries to “urgently rescue” the boat, according to a statement by ASEAN parliamentarians for human rights.

The call comes days after the Sri Lankan navy rescued a boat carrying 104 Rohingya refugees.

CNN has reached out to the Indian and Sri Lankan navies for comment.

Baloch said the UN believes some 2,000 Rohingya have undertaken the risky journey at sea this year alone.

Many are leaving the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where conditions are dire and women are at risk of assault and sexual violence.

The camps have expanded over the past five years as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled a brutal campaign of killings and arson by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state.

Life in the camps has its own dangers. Fires are frequent and have destroyed hundreds of homes, while flooding during the monsoon season often wipes out poorly constructed huts.

Desperate to leave, many pay illegal traffickers to smuggle them out of the camps.

Khan said his sister was looking for a better life for her daughter and decided to attempt the dangerous sea voyage out of Bangladesh on November 25.

“The Rohingya are increasingly desperate, they are ready to risk their lives,” Khan said.

The perilous journey from Cox’s Bazaar to Malaysia can take weeks and conditions at sea are harsh.

Many on the stranded boat drink rainwater when they can, Khan said, adding that some are increasingly desperate they drink ocean water.

Rahan Uddin said his 17-year-old brother was also on the boat, having boarded in hopes of finding a job and earning enough money to help pay medical bills for his sick parents.

“We are very concerned for him and his safety,” Uddin said. “We don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

While all countries are bound by international law to rescue those in distress at sea, prompt action is not always forthcoming, particularly when it comes to Rohingya refugees.

In December last year, Indonesia agreed to help repair a stranded boat full of more than 100 Rohingya refugees off its coast, but did not allow its passengers to take refuge in the country.

In March 2020, a larger boat carrying nearly 300 Rohingyas spent more than six months adrift at sea. Its passengers were turned away by several countries before finally being accepted by Indonesia. By then, at least 30 people, including women and children, had died. Many female survivors said they were assaulted aboard the ship.

Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Rohingya refugees in India could be forcibly returned to Myanmar.

India is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention and does not have a national refugee protection structure, according to UNHCR. Rohingya refugees are often referred to as illegal immigrants subject to deportation from India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for trying to remove the Rohingya over the years.

Khan said he wanted the international community to “see us as human beings”.

“Let our people get off the boat,” he said. “Please save the Rohingyas. Otherwise we risk dying.

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