Fifty days after they sailed out of Bangladesh’s coastal region of Cox’s Bazar, more than 80 Muslim Rohingya refugees were reported stranded in a boat in the Andaman sea.
“But there is no news from the boat in the last 10 days. The Indian coastguard seem to have snatched the one satellite phone on the boat. There are rumours that the Indians have pushed the boat into Bangladesh or Myanmar territorial waters while some say it remains anchored off the coast of northern Andamans,” said Chris Lewa, director of “Arakan Project”, which monitors conditions of Rohingyas both in refugee camps in Bangladesh and other parts of South-east Asia.
She and other human rights activists say the Indian coast guards have provided the refugees with food, drinking water and medical attention but not allowed the boat ashore.
“That is perhaps because India was negotiating with Bangladesh to take back these refugees. But since Bangladesh has refused to take them back as their boat was tracked far away from the Andamans, the fate of the Rohingyas is uncertain,” said a Thailand-based human rights activist on condition of anonymity.
The activists said 50 days at sea in a ramshackle boat may be ‘a real tough proposition’ for anybody.
Eight of the ninety Rohingyas who set sail (65 women, 20 men and 5 minors) have already died of diarohhea and dehydration after the boat’s engine developed trouble on Feb 18, a week into the journey towards South-east Asia.
81 Rohingyas, mostly women , were reported to be on the boat with three Bangladesh crew members when the rights activists lost contact with the boat. The survivors confirmed eight deaths on the boat before they lost contact.
“We thank the Indian coastguards for providing immediate relief but Delhi should either negotiate the boat’s return to Bangladesh with the Rohingyas or take them ashore to a camp for better medical care. This is a humanitarian situation,” the Thailand-based activist said.
The UN has also called for appropriate measures and relief .
Indian authorities confirmed 47 Rohingyas on the boat had UNHCR-issued refugee cards given out in Bangladesh.
“Our real worry is over possibilities of handing over the Rohingyas to Myanmar where they originally hail from, if Bangladesh refuses to take them back and India does not take them ashore. Myanmar, which recently took back more than 1,000 Rohingyas from Malaysia, may agree to take them against their will,” the rights activist said.
But there is no update on the condition of survivors on the boat and it was also not clear if it had been repaired.
Boats carrying Rohingya refugees have regularly drifted towards India’s Andaman islands and received immediate shelter until now.