They had boarded the boat with hopes of a new start.
Dozens of refugees have been stranded at sea for weeks. No help has come.
A single mother who hadn’t been able to work thought she’d finally find employment in a new country. A 17-year-old who dreamed of receiving higher education. A young woman on her way to meet her new husband.
But days after leaving their refugee camp in Bangladesh, the engine on their boat failed. And for more than 2½ weeks, all three of them, along with more than 150 other Rohingya Muslim refugees, have found themselves adrift in the Andaman sea in the northeast Indian Ocean. Food and water ran out more than 10 days ago, according to relatives of those on board. And as many as 20 people have already died, including children, per the United Nations.
Despite increasingly desperate appeals for help, neighboring countries have not dispatched help — or given any indication that they intend to, activists say.
“Please,” said Mohammad Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and niece are on board the boat. “I ask the international community to not let them die.”
“Rohingya are human beings,” he added, “Our lives matter.”
In 2017, following targeted attacks by the Myanmar military that the United States now considers acts of genocide, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar and settled in Cox’s Bazar, a city on the southeast coast of Bangladesh, forming what has become the biggest refugee camp in the world.
For years, groups of refugees have tried to leave the camp, where they’re largely not allowed to seek gainful employment or higher education, and where their mobility is tightly controlled. Because most of them are stateless and options for formal resettlement are rare, many turn to smugglers to take them across the Andaman sea to countries in Southeast Asia.
The number of these departures, often taken on unsafe vessels, has spiked dramatically in recent months, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Nearly 2,000 people have tried this year to cross the Andaman sea from Bangladesh or Myanmar — about six times as many as in 2020.
The stranded boat departed Cox’s Bazar in late November and was bound for Indonesia — more than 1,000 miles away — where passengers hoped to stay or to head on to Malaysia, where there’s a large Rohingya population. But on Dec. 4, the captain of the boat sent out distress signals via a satellite phone — the engine had failed, the captain said, and supplies of food were dwindling.
Aminullah, a Rohingya man in Cox’s Bazar who goes by only one name, said his 16-year-old sister is on board the boat. “At this point,” he said, “we don’t even know if they are alive.”
Aid groups and the UNHCR have called on countries in the region, which include India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, to send out rescue missions and allow the boat to disembark. But as of Friday, no assistance had been dispatched.
In a statement Thursday urging regional governments to act, U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews noted that “the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea is a fundamental rule of international law, is a norm of customary international law and is incorporated in international treaties.”
The boat was originally reported near the Nicobar Islands, potentially in Indian waters, activists said. Priyali Sur, founder of the Azadi Project, a New Delhi-based organization that supports refugees, said she made appeals over recent weeks to India’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, urging it to send out rescuers. As of Thursday, she said, she had not received any confirmation that it plans to do so.
“The fact is that none of these countries wants to take them,” said Sur. “We’ve seen this again and again with refugee communities.”
India’s Ministry of Defense, which oversees the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, and its Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to inquiries Thursday. Officials in Thailand and Malaysia also did not respond to inquires this week about whether they planned to assist the boat.
Eros Shidqy Putra, a member of Indonesia’s refugee task force, said officials are still verifying the whereabouts of the stranded boat and whether it has entered Indonesian waters. The country is “very concerned about the fate of the Rohingya refugees,” he said, but discussions are still ongoing on how to respond to the situation because “decisions must be made in the right way.”
Khan, speaking over the phone from Cox’s Bazar, said there isn’t time to wait. Casualties have been mounting by the day. Governments need to dispatch rescuers immediately, he said, but they can’t stop there.
His sister, a 27-year-old single mother, had been struggling in the refugee camp for years, Khan said. She was frequently stricken with illness and couldn’t find steady work to provide for her two children. She had hoped to find a better life in Malaysia and a better future for her youngest daughter, who is 5.
“If we have nationality, if we have passports, we wouldn’t die at sea,” Khan said, choking back tears.
“We’ve already suffered a lot,” he continued. “Enough is enough.”