UNITED NATIONS: Two vessels, carrying about 400 Rohingya Muslims, have been adrift at sea for an alarming two weeks, prompting a plea from the UN refugee agency for nearby governments to intervene and rescue them.

Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissio­ner for Refugees (UNHCR), expressed deep concern for the safety of around 400 individuals, including women and children, who are facing extreme distress due to engine failures on their boats.”

We are extremely worried about the risk of some 400 desperate children, women and men dying in the Andaman Sea without efforts to rescue and ensure safe disembarkation,” Mr Baloch emphasised, highlighting the urgent need for immediate assistance.

He underscored the potential for another tragic incident, akin to Dec 2022 when a boat carrying 180 Rohingya refugees went missing, marking one of the deadliest incidents in the region.

The Rohingya community, already grappling with desperate conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh, endured a harrowing year in 2022. The sinking of a boat added to the toll of human lives lost at sea, making it one of the worst years for this persecuted community.

The majority of those embarking on perilous boat journeys are women and children, seeking refuge from crowded facilities in Bangladesh where nearly one million Rohingya from Myanmar are living.

Mr Baloch implored nearby governments to take swift action to rescue the stranded individuals at sea, emphasising the critical need for humanitarian efforts to prevent further loss of life. Unfortunately, the exact locations of the two boats remain unknown, and it is unclear which country they departed from. The UNHCR spokesperson expressed the organisation’s fear that essential resources such as food and water may be running out for those on board. He revealed that the agency received information about the stranded individuals from their relatives and human rights workers who communicated with them via telephone. The lack of precise details regarding the passengers’ conditions further complicates the already dire situation.

In a distressing report, the Associated Press (AP) quoted the captain of one of the stranded boats, stating that approximately 180 to 190 people were on board, and they had run out of food and water. The boat was reportedly about 200 miles from Thailand’s west coast and a similar distance from Aceh, an Indonesian province frequently sought as a destination by Rohingya refugees.

While local authorities in Aceh were reportedly aware of the two missing boats, there were no immediate plans for a rescue, according to Miftach Cut Adek, the chief of an official fishermen’s association in Aceh. The lack of information from the Royal Thai Navy further complicates the efforts to coordinate a rescue mission.

Mr Baloch drew attention to the inaction of several countries in the region, attributing it to the tragic deaths of hundreds of refugees in similar circumstances the previous year.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2023

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