This news comment is attributable Indrika Ratwatte, Director of the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.
BANGKOK, Thailand – UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is appealing for the immediate rescue of a group of Rohingya refugees in distress on the Andaman Sea today.
UNHCR received reports of an unconfirmed number of Rohingya refugees aboard a vessel in distress as of the evening of Saturday 20th February. The refugees report having departed from Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf, Bangladesh, approximately ten days ago. Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration. We understand that a number of refugees have already lost their lives, and that fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours.
Refugees have told us that the vessel ran out of food and water several days ago, and that many of the passengers are ill. The vessel has reportedly been adrift since the engine broke down, more than a week ago. We have not been able to confirm the number of refugees or their precise location at this time.
In the absence of precise information as to the refugees’ location, we have alerted the authorities of the relevant maritime states of these reports and appealed for their swift assistance, should the vessel be found in their area of responsibility for search and rescue. Immediate action is needed to save lives and prevent further tragedy.
As always, saving lives must be the priority. In line with international obligations under the law of the sea and longstanding maritime traditions, the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea should be upheld, irrespective of nationality or legal status. We appeal to all governments to deploy their search and rescue capacities and promptly disembark those in distress.
UNHCR stands ready to support governments across the region in providing any necessary humanitarian assistance and quarantine measures in the coming days for those disembarked, in line with public health protocols.
The fact that refugees and migrants continue to undertake fatal journeys accentuates the need for immediate and collective regional response to search, rescue and disembarkation.