Many Rohingya are feared dead at sea more than three weeks after their boat ran aground off the coast of India, where at least 160 people remain on board on the brink of starvation, relatives and the refugee agency said of the United Nations.
Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and 5-year-old niece are on the boat, told CNN on Wednesday that two children and a woman had died, adding that those still alive “have no water, no food, no medicine.” .
“We are very worried and want them to be rescued. It is getting harder and harder for them to survive,” Khan said, adding that he last spoke to the ship’s captain on Sunday.
The ship, currently near the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, has been adrift since late November when its engine shut down.
He is believed to have been heading to Malaysia from Bangladesh, where around one million Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, live in refugee camps after fleeing violence in their native Myanmar.
CNN cannot independently verify whether there have been any deaths on the ship. A UN spokesman said there were “unverified reports suggesting that at least 20 people may have died during this horrific ordeal”.
Babar Baloch, Asia spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), urged both India and Sri Lanka to help rescue those on board.
“Quick action is needed to save lives and prevent further deaths,” Baloch said. “We repeat our warning that the inaction of states to save lives is leading to more human misery and tragedy with each passing day.”
A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers has also urged neighboring countries to “urgently rescue” the ship, according to a statement from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
The call 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 about 2,000 Rohingya have made the risky sea journey this year alone.
Many leave the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where conditions are dire and women are at risk of sexual assault and violence.
The camps have grown over the past five years as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled a brutal campaign of killings and arson by the Myanmar military in the western state of Rakhine.
Life in the camps has its own dangers. Fires are frequent and have destroyed hundreds of houses, while floods during the monsoon season often wipe out poorly constructed shacks.
Desperate to leave, many pay illegal traffickers to smuggle them out of the camps.
Khan said her sister was looking for a better life for her daughter and decided to attempt the dangerous sea journey off Bangladesh on November 25.
“The Rohingya people are growing desperate, they are willing to risk their lives,” Khan said.
The perilous journey from Cox’s Bazaar to Malaysia can take weeks and sea conditions are difficult.
Many on the stranded boat are drinking rainwater when they can, Khan said, adding that some are growing so desperate that they are drinking water from the ocean.
Rahan Uddin said his 17-year-old brother was also on the boat, having come aboard hoping to find work and earn 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’s alive or not.”
Although all countries are bound by international law to rescue people in distress at sea, swift action is not always forthcoming, particularly when it comes to Rohingya refugees.
In December last year, Indonesia agreed to help repair a stranded boat full of more than 100 Rohingya refugees off its coast, but did not allow its passengers to take refuge in the country.
In March 2020, a larger boat carrying nearly 300 Rohingya spent more than six months adrift at sea. Its passengers were rejected by several countries before finally being accepted by Indonesia. By then, at least 30 people, including women and children, had died. Many female survivors said they were assaulted on board the ship.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Rohingya refugees in India could be forcibly returned to Myanmar.
India is not a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention and has no national refugee protection structure, according to the UNHCR. Rohingya refugees are often labeled as illegal immigrants subject to deportation from India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for trying to return the Rohingya over the years.
Khan said he wants the international community to “please see us as human beings”.
“Let our people disembark the ship,” he said. “Please save the Rohingya. Otherwise we may die.”