Activists, families call for rescue of boat adrift in Andaman Sea

Pulack Ghatack and Abdur Rahman
Dhaka and Teknaf, Bangladesh
Activists, families call for rescue of boat adrift in Andaman Sea Nur Bahar of Teknaf, Bangladesh, holds a picture of her son, Mohammad Mizan, after hearing an audio clip of his satellite phone call from a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea, Dec. 20, 2022.
Abdur Rahman/BenarNews

Updated at 8:42 a.m. ET on 2022-12-23

As many as 20 people have died aboard a boat stranded at sea for days north of Indonesia’s Aceh province and carrying scores of Rohingya refugees, NGOs told BenarNews on Thursday while imploring the region’s governments to rescue the trawler.

The boat with more than 100 Rohingya and 50 Bangladesh nationals aboard has been adrift in the Andaman Sea after its engines failed, according to relatives and activists interviewed by BenarNews. Those on the boat have used a satellite phone to reach out for help.

Mohammad Mizan, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi migrant on the boat, called his cousin, identified as Tareq, in Malaysia on Dec. 16 to ask for someone to rescue them, saying he feared he might not survive. Tareq recorded the call and forwarded the audio clip to his family in Teknaf, in southeastern Bangladesh, who provided a copy to BenarNews.

“We are helplessly drinking brackish water for five days. Please do something to save us or prepare for our kulkhani [funeral prayer],” Mizan said. “We may survive [just] another day because there is no food and water, except salt water in the ocean.”

At the time, he said, the boat was close to Indian territory in the Andaman Sea. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, chains located northwest of Aceh, are part of India.

“The Indian Navy is around here. But they are not rescuing us,” Mizan said during his distress call.

Mizan’s mother, Nur Bahar, a resident of Habir Chhara village in Teknaf, broke down while listening to her son’s voice.

“After 16 days, I came to know that my school-going son, Mizan, was trapped in a trawler floating in the sea. We don’t know how he got there,” she told BenarNews.

Authorities are not sure when or where the trawler began its journey.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a human rights organization that advocates for Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority, said the boat had been supplied with some food and water since Mizan’s plea for help.

“We believe that the Indian Navy has given them food and water, though it did not rescue them,” she told BenarNews in a phone call from Thailand on Thursday evening. “[T]heir new audio calls sound better, while earlier their voices were very weak and feeble.

“It is very shocking that they have not been rescued.”

22 bd-rohingya-inside.jpg
Rohingya sit in their boat, which had been adrift for days, as it arrives at Krueng Geukueh Port in North Aceh, Indonesia, Dec. 31, 2021. [Rahmat Mirza/AP]

In an email to BenarNews on Wednesday, Lewa said her group had been receiving dozens of messages from those trapped on the boat, adding that most lasted less than 30 seconds.

“It is heartbreaking listening to these because most messages are men and women crying, and calling for someone to come and rescue them. They said in a sobbing and weak voice that they are running out of water and food,” she said in the email.

“Two or three days ago, one man said that three women had jumped overboard because they could not bear it anymore. Yesterday, the captain said that 16 already died.”

She estimated that the death toll could have climbed to 20 since then.

“The reality is that we don’t really know,” she said.

Sayid Alam, president of the Rohingya Association Thailand, feared that the death toll could be even higher.

He said he believed that there were two boats afloat at sea. Earlier this month, he noted, the Sri Lankan Navy had rescued a boat, while 154 Rohingya were rescued from a sinking boat in the Andaman Sea and transferred to the Myanmar Navy.

“We heard nothing from one of them. The other has about 160 people alive and 28 have died. It is floating 380 km (236 miles) from India and 80 km (50) from Indonesia,” Sayid told BenarNews on Thursday.

Other reports said the boat was adrift somewhere between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Lilianne Fan, co-founder and international director of the humanitarian organization Geutanyoe Foundation, said the boat appeared to be in Malaysia’s search and rescue region “off the coast of northern Aceh.”

“The boat has still not been rescued,” Fan told BenarNews. “We have no way to verify precise numbers yet but some relatives of the passengers have reported around 16 people have died so far.”

In addition, Burmese junta troops on Tuesday arrested 112 Rohingya near an island off Bogale township in Myanmar’s southwestern Ayeyarwady region, local residents told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

The eight children, 47 women and 57 men were in two motor boats while waiting for other boats to take them to Bogale when they were caught, RFA reported.

Some of the Rohingya on the boat stranded north of Aceh, meanwhile, were losing patience.

One man aboard it left an angry message, asking the Arakan Project not to call anymore or ask for GPS coordinates “since you are doing nothing to save us,” Lewa quoted him as saying.

“[W]e hope the Malaysian government asks Indonesia to rescue the distressed people. There is a question, where they can be taken to – I think they may be taken to Malaysia with the help of Indonesia,” Lewa said.

Urgent calls for regional cooperation

Earlier this week, a group of Southeast Asian lawmakers, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), issued a statement on demanding that the regional bloc’s 10 members and other neighboring countries launch search-and-rescue operations based on humanitarian obligations.

“Any further delay is unconscionable. This neglect of Rohingya refugees stranded in the sea is nothing new, as it has been going on for years and has resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths that could have been easily been prevented if the countries in the region fulfilled the most elementary humanitarian principles,” APHR chairman Charles Santiago said.

The statement followed a similar one on Dec. 16 by the United Nations refugee agency.

On Dec. 2, UNHCR  reported that nearly 2,000 Rohingya had set sail from Bangladesh and Myanmar in the first 11 months of 2022 – compared to 287 in 2021. The U.N. agency estimated that about 120 of those who set sail this year had died or were lost at sea.

In Bangladesh, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mohammad Mizanur Rahman said he was aware of reports about the stranded boat.

“But we have no evidence that they stayed in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. As far as we know, Rohingya from Myanmar are crossing to Malaysia by sea,” he told BenarNews on Thursday.

About 1 million Rohingya are sheltering in sprawling camps in the southeastern district along the border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state. These include about 740,000 who crossed into Bangladesh after the Burmese military launched a brutal offensive in their home state in August 2017.

Muhammed Jubair, acting chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Humanity and a refugee community leader, challenged Mizanur Rahman’s statement.

“I have heard about several Rohingya from various refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are on the trawler drifting in the sea,” he told BenarNews, adding, “I don’t know how they got there.”

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported that the stranded boat appeared to be in Malaysia’s Special Administrative Region. It was last believed to be in the country’s search and rescue region.


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