Many Rohingya are feared dead at sea more than three weeks after their boat became stranded off the Indian coast, where at least 160 people remain aboard on the brink of starvation, family members and the United Nations’ refugee agency said.
Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and 5-year-old niece are on the vessel, told CNN Wednesday that two children and a woman had died, adding that those still alive have “no water, food or medicine.”
“We are extremely concerned and want them to be rescued. It’s growing increasingly difficult for them to survive,” said Khan, adding that he last spoke to the boat’s captain on Sunday.
The boat, currently near the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, has reportedly been adrift since late November when its engine cut out.
It is thought to have been heading to Malaysia from Bangladesh, where around 1 million Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, live in refugee camps after fleeing violence in their native Myanmar.
CNN cannot independently verify whether any deaths have occurred on the boat. A United Nations spokesman said there were “unverified reports suggesting at least 20 people may have already died during this shocking ordeal.”
Babar Baloch, an Asia spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), urged both India and Sri Lanka to help rescue those aboard.
“Quick action is needed to save lives and avoid further deaths,” Baloch said. “We repeat our warning that inaction from states to save lives is resulting in more human misery and tragedies with each passing day.”
A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers has also urged neighboring countries to “urgently rescue” the boat, according to a statement from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
The appeal comes days after the Sri Lankan Navy rescued a boat carrying 104 Rohingya refugees.
CNN has reached out to the Indian and Sri Lankan navies for comment.
Baloch said the UN believes some 2,000 Rohingya have taken the risky sea journey this year alone.
Many leave from the overcrowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where conditions are dire and women are at risk of sexual assault and violence.
The camps have swelled over the past five years as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled a brutal campaign of killing and arson by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state.
Life at the camps has its own dangers. Fires are frequent and have destroyed hundreds of homes, while floods during the monsoon season often wipe out the poorly built huts.
Desperate to leave, many pay illegal traffickers to smuggle them out of the camps.
Khan said his sister was in search of a better life for her daughter, and decided to attempt the dangerous sea journey out of Bangladesh on November 25.
“The Rohingya people are growing desperate, they are willing to risk their lives,” Khan said.
The perilous voyage from Cox’s Bazaar to Malaysia can take weeks, and conditions at sea are challenging.
Many on the stranded boat are drinking rain water when they can, Khan said, adding some are growing so desperate, they are drinking water from the ocean.
Rahan Uddin said his 17-year-old brother was also on the boat, having boarded in the hope of finding a job and earning enough money to help with his ailing parents’ medical bills.
“We are very concerned about him and his safety,” Uddin said. “We don’t know if he is alive or not.”
While all countries are bound by international law to rescue people in distress at sea, swift action is not always forthcoming – particularly where Rohingya refugees are concerned.
In December last year, Indonesia agreed to help repair a stranded boat packed with more than 100 Rohingya refugees off its coast, but did not allow its passengers to seek refuge in the country.
In March 2020, a larger boat carrying almost 300 Rohingya spent more than six months adrift at sea. Its passengers were turned away by several countries before finally being accepted by Indonesia. By then, at least 30 people including women and children had died. Many surviving women said they were assaulted on board the vessel.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Rohingya refugees in India could be forcibly returned to Myanmar.
India is not party to the UN Refugee Convention and lacks a national refugee protection structure, according to the UNHCR. Rohingya refugees are often labeled illegal immigrants subject to deportation from India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for trying to send back Rohingya over the years.
Khan said he wants the international community “to please see us as human beings.”
“Let our people disembark from the boat,” he said. “Please save the Rohingya. Otherwise, we may die.”