Refugee agency says the refugees have run out of food and water and a number of people have already died.
The UN refugee agency is calling for the immediate rescue of a group of Rohingya refugees after their boat broke down in the Andaman Sea leaving them adrift for days without food or water.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR says it received reports of an “unconfirmed number of Rohingya refugees aboard a vessel in distress as of the evening of Saturday 20th February.”
It urged the countries in the area to begin an immediate search.
“Saving lives must be the priority,” said Indrika Ratwatte, the director of the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement. “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. We appeal to all governments to deploy their search and rescue capacities and promptly disembark those in distress.”
The UN agency said it could not confirm the size of the group or their precise location, but said they were thought to have left Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf in Bangladesh about 10 days ago.
“Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration,” Ratwatte added. “We understand that a number [of] refugees have already lost their lives and that fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours.”
Hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh since they were forced out of Myanmar in a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for the group who are among the world’s most persecuted peoples. And although boat journeys have declined in recent years, governments around Southeast Asia have tightened borders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dozens of people were found last year in boats drifting off the Malaysian island of Langkawi, while many more came ashore with the help of local villagers in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Save the Children noted in a report last June that Rohingya were still prepared to pay traffickers to make the journey despite the risks involved.
There are currently some 102,250 Rohingya registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia but rights groups say there are many more who are undocumented. Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia are signatories to the UN convention on refugees.
UNHCR said it would provide humanitarian assistance and quarantine measures for those who were rescued, in line with public health protocols.
“The fact that refugees and migrants continue to undertake fatal journeys accentuates the need for immediate and collective regional response to search, rescue and disembarkation,” the agency said.