UNHCR urges rescue of Rohingyas adrift off Thailand

BANGKOK, 9 Dec 2022:

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday called for an immediate rescue of some 200 Rohingyas – a Muslim minority persecuted in Myanmar – who are adrift on a boat with little provision in the Andaman Sea.

The UN agency said in a statement those passengers “have been without food and water for days and are suffering extreme dehydration,” and urged the authorities of the countries in the area to ensure they can “safely disembark.”

“The priority must now be to save lives and avoid even greater tragedy,” stressed UNHCR.

Reports suggest the boat carrying the ethnic Muslim minority refugees from Myanmar set sail from Bangladesh, and has been adrift since Dec 1, after its engines broke down.

Bangladesh is home to more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled neighbouring Myanmar, including around 728,000 who escaped a wave of violence and persecution by the Myanmar military launched in August 2017, a campaign that has resulted in allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocidal intent.

Non-profit Arakan Project’s head Chris Lewa said on Wednesday the ship left sometime around Nov 25-26 and emitted a distress call on Sunday after engine failure.

Lewa said that vessel was carrying at least around 150 people, and at least four of them are believed to have died.

She further said that after talking to relatives of some of the people on board, they were able to locate the vessel in waters near Thailand – but at this point, it may have moved closer to India or Malaysia.

The countries that have a coastline in the Andaman Sea are India, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

On Wednesday, Tun Khin, head of the non-profit Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, urged the authorities of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to intervene to save the stranded Rohingyas.

At least 119 Rohingyas have died or gone missing this year while trying to flee Bangladesh and Myanmar on dozens of boats seeking to Malaysia, according to UNHCR data.

The boats carrying Rohingya refugees often leave for destinations in Malaysia and Indonesia, especially since they are Muslim majority countries.

In 2015, thousands of Rohingya were adrift on boats for weeks until the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to let them land on their shores.

The Myanmar authorities do not recognise Rohingyas as citizens, but see them as Bangladeshi immigrants, and have for years subjected them to all forms of discrimination, including restrictions on freedom of movement, and access to health and education.

Separately, the first batch of 24 Rohingyas left for the US yesterday as a part of the resettlement plan for the refugee group, Bangladesh authorities confirmed.

A total 62 Rohingyas have been cleared by the authorities for resettlement to the US, revealed a Bangladesh foreign ministry official, who wished to remain unnamed as he was not authorised to speak to the media. “The first batch left today. The others will leave in phases.”

Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation commissioner Mizanur Rahman said the authorities had cleared 62 Rohingyas for resettlement in the US but did not give further details.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters in Dhaka on Wednesday the US would take in 300 to 800 Rohingyas every year.

“There’s nothing to be excited about. (…) Rather, it will raise fresh concern as 600,000 Rohingyas living in Myanmar may try to come to Bangladesh now.”

The resettlement of Rohingyas to the US started just a day after US assistant secretary of the US Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Julieta Valls Noyes, concluded her five-day visit to Bangladesh.

“As part of our unwavering partnership with the Government of Bangladesh and our comprehensive response to Rohingya refugees, the US government is very pleased to establish, in coordination with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other resettlement countries, a resettlement programme for the most vulnerable Rohingya refugees,” Noyes said in a statement.

Noyes, who visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char during her stay in Bangladesh between Dec 3 and 7 did not provide any concrete numbers about how many Rohingyas would be resettled in the US.

In recent months some 28,000 Rohingya refugees have been relocated to Bhasan Char, a previously uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal.

Two attempts to repatriate the refugees from Bangladesh failed because the Rohingyas refused to return home without guarantees of citizenship and security.