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Save Rohingya refugees from starvation at sea, UNHCR urges Asian countries


The fate of nearly 200 Rohingya refugees adrift in the Indian Ocean over the past month is growing increasingly desperate, the UN refugee agency said on Friday, as it reiterated its appeal to countries from the area to help save them.

Many passengers are feared dead and survivors are believed to be on the brink of starvation aboard the boat, which is believed to have headed for Malaysia from Bangladesh, where around 1 million members of the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority live in refugee camps after fleeing violence. in their native Burma.

“This shocking ordeal and tragedy must not continue,” UNHCR Asia-Pacific Director Indrika Ratwatte said in a statement on Friday. “They are human beings – men, women and children. We must see the States of the region help save lives and not let people die. »

About 190 people remain on board the boat after initial calls for intervention by the UN agency were “continuously ignored” by several countries in South and Southeast Asia, he added.

The location of the boat remains unclear. On Wednesday, it was near the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. UNHCR said it alerted India’s maritime rescue center earlier this week, asking for immediate action.

On Friday, the agency said it received unverified reports that the ship had been spotted north of Aceh, Indonesia. It would have been adrift since late November when its engine cut out.

CNN has contacted the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministries, as well as the Indian Navy, but has yet to receive a response.

Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and 5-year-old niece are on board, said he had lost contact with them.

“Very worried for all of them, especially my sister and my niece,” he told CNN on Friday. He had previously said that two children and a woman had died, adding that those still alive had no water, food or medicine.

“The death toll may have increased since then,” he added.

In a statement on Thursday, UN special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said regional governments “should prevent any loss of life and provide urgent relief and immediate relocation” of stranded Rohingya.

“Too many Rohingya lives have already been lost in sea crossings,” he said. “A growing number of Rohingyas have taken dangerous sea and land routes in recent weeks, highlighting the sense of hopelessness and hopelessness felt by Rohingyas in Myanmar and the region.

According to UN estimates, some 2,000 Rohingya have made the risky sea journey 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.

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

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.

Passengers have been turned away from some countries, while women have reported being assaulted during the journey.

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