The United Nations said it feared that 180 Rohingya refugees stranded for weeks in the Andaman Sea may have died, while hope emerged that some of those adrift on a second crowded boat had been rescued in Indonesia.
In a statement on Saturday, the U.N. refugee agency said it had received unconfirmed reports that the vessel with 180 onboard, which had left Bangladesh several weeks ago, had started cracking early in December before its likely sinking. About one million Rohingya refugees, who fled state persecution and massacre in Myanmar, live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“Relatives have lost contact. Those last in touch presume all are dead,” the agency said. “We hope against hope this is not the case.”
If the boat’s loss is confirmed, it would make 2022 one of the deadliest in recent years for Rohingya refugees in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, bringing the year’s toll to about 400. At least 2,500 Rohingya refugees have lost their lives in the dangerous waters of Southeast Asia since 2013, according to U.N. estimates.
“This is a deadly stretch of waters in the region; the numbers of those taking the journey are small and the casualties big,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. “Most of it is linked to inaction.”
With conditions abysmal in the overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and the future uncertain, a large number of Rohingya families have taken the dangerous journey by sea to other countries in Southeast Asia.
The U.N. Security Council, in a resolution last week, “demanded an immediate end to all forms of violence” in Myanmar and asked for addressing “the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine State.” Thousands of Rohingya have faced violent deaths in the state after the Myanmar military and allied militias intensified their targeting of the minority group in 2017; the United Nations has previously called the military’s actions there “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Last week’s resolution called for creating “the conditions necessary for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons.”
Rohingya activists and refugee officials said that since November at least five boats had left Cox’s Bazar, the location of the main refugee camp in Bangladesh. While one reached Indonesia, and two others were rescued by Sri Lanka and Vietnam, the fate of two remained uncertain for weeks.
U.N. officials said their appeal to governments in the region to save one of those boats, with about 190 onboard, had shifted with each indication of its location.
At different points, the boat was spotted near Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. Finally, on Sunday morning, officials in Indonesia confirmed to the U.N. that 58 people onboard had been rescued and brought to shore in Aceh, with initial information and news media reports suggesting fishermen were the rescuers. Indonesian officials could not be reached for confirmation, and the fate of the others onboard remained unclear.
“We can confirm 58 people have been rescued and disembarked in Aceh, Indonesia,” Mr. Baloch, the refugee agency spokesman, said. “Worries remain for 130 still out there on the verge of perishing in deadly waters. Hope those lives are also saved soon.”
The United Nations said the boat that it fears sank had most likely left Bangladesh around the same time as the one that was rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy last week.
Rohingya activists said the boat had left on Dec. 2, with 24 children among the 180 on board. Relatives had not been able to contact the boat, which was carrying a satellite phone, since Dec. 8.
Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting.