New Delhi: A boat carrying 90 Rohingya refugees and three Bangladesh crewmen drifted into India's territorial waters on Monday, with calls for immediate rescue mounting from UN agencies and humanitarian groups.
The boat has a satphone and the crew confirmed to humanitarian group 'Arakan Project' the presence of 65 Rohingya women and girls, five children below the age of 2 and 20 men.
"Since the boat's engines stopped functioning six days ago, it has been drifting towards India's Andaman islands from its course.
"The Rohingyas boarded the boat south of the Bangladesh seaside town of Cox's Bazar on 11th February and was headed towards Southeast Asia when its engines broke down," Chris Lewa, director of the Thailand-based "Arakan Project" told this writer.
Lewa, who has long association with the Rohingyas through her humanitarian project to provide relief of the hapless refugees often stranded in hostile host countries or at sea, said eight of these 90 refugees have already died.
"They have no drinking water or food left, so they are drinking sea water in desperation. That is why some of them are collapsing.
"Only the Indian navy or coast guards in Andamans can save them," said Chris Lewa, adding her organisation have informed the UNHCR and the Western embassies in Dhaka about the "huge humanitarian crisis" over the boat people.
She said the boat's crew have said they have seen Indian naval patrol crafts near the area.
But Indian navy sources said they were "trying to ascertain the identity of a boat that seems to have drifted into Indian waters off the Andaman coast".
They promised details later.
So Lewa said she was considering a direct appeal to the Indian government, especially the Indian Navy and coast guards deployed in Andamans to intervene.
"Indian coast guard patrols have traced the Rohingya boat 40 km east of Rangat in the Andamans. They should save the inmates by taking them to safe shelter with food, water and medical treatment," said Chris Lewa.
The exact coordinates of the boat at 10.30 a.m. Indian time on Monday was shared when the 'Arakan Project' managed to reach the crew of the boat.
"They told me that three onboard the boat died on Saturday and five on Monday -- all victims suffered from acute diarrhoea after consuming seawater," said Chris Lewa.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had appealed for the immediate rescue of the Rohingya refugees on this boat.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR says it received reports of an "unconfirmed number of Rohingya refugees aboard a vessel in distress as of the evening of Saturday 20th February".
It urged the countries in the area, meaning India, Bangladesh and Myanmar to begin an immediate search.
"Saving lives must be the priority," said Indrika Ratwatte, the director of the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement.
"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."
"Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration," Ratwatte added.
"We understand that a number [of] refugees have already lost their lives and that fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours."
Hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingyas have been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh since they were forced out of Myanmar in a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for the group who are among the world's most persecuted peoples. And although boat journeys have declined in recent years, governments around Southeast Asia have tightened borders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are currently some 102,250 Rohingya registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia but rights groups say there are many more who are undocumented. Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia are signatories to the UN convention on refugees.
UNHCR said it would provide humanitarian assistance and quarantine measures for those who were rescued, 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," the agency said.