About 400 Rohingya refugees have been adrift in two boats on the Andaman Sea for about two weeks, according to the United Nations, which called on regional governments to help rescue them.
The number of Rohingya Muslims fleeing by boats in a seasonal exodus – usually from squalid, overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh – has been rising since last year due to cuts to food rations and an increase in gang violence.
“There are about 400 children, women and men looking death in the eye if there are no moves to save these desperate souls,” said Babar Baloch, the regional spokesperson for the UN refugee agency.
The boats apparently embarked from Bangladesh and are reported to have been at sea for about two weeks, he said.
Baloch said if the refugees were not given assistance, the world “may witness another tragedy such as in December 2022, when a boat with 180 people onboard went missing in one of the darkest such incidents in the region”.
The captain of one of the boats, contacted by the AP news agency, said he had 180 to 190 people onboard. They were out of food and water and the engine was damaged. The captain, who gave his name as Maan Nokim, said he feared all onboard would die if they did not receive help.
On Sunday, Nokim said the boat was 200 miles (320km) from Thailand’s west coast. The whereabouts of the other boat was unclear.
A Thai navy spokesperson, contacted on Monday, said he had no information about the boats.
The location given by Nokim is about the same distance from Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh, where another boat with 139 people landed on Saturday on Sabang Island, off the tip of Sumatra, Baloch said. Those on the ship included 58 children, 45 women and 36 men – the typical balance of those making the sea journey, he said. Hundreds more arrived in Aceh last month.
About 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to the camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, after a brutal counterinsurgency campaign tore through their communities. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of Rohingya homes, and international courts are considering whether their actions constituted genocide.
Most of the refugees leaving the camps by sea attempt to reach Muslim-dominated Malaysia, hoping to find work. Thailand turns them away or detains them. Indonesia, another Muslim-dominated country where many end up, also puts refugees in detention.
The aid group Save the Children said in a report on 22 November that 465 Rohingya children had arrived in Indonesia by boat in the previous week and the number of refugees taking to the seas had increased by more than 80%.
It said more than 3,570 Rohingya Muslims had left Bangladesh and Myanmar this year, up from nearly 2,000 in the same period of 2022. Of those who left this year, 225 are known to have died or were missing, with many others not accounted for.
“The desperate situation of Rohingya families is forcing them to take unacceptable risks in search of a better life. These perilous journeys show that many Rohingya refugees have lost all hope,” Sultana Begum, the group’s manager for humanitarian policy and advocacy, said in a statement.