About 400 people are believed to be stranded on two boats adrift in the Andaman Sea, the United Nations refugee agency says, calling on nearby governments to help rescue them.
Most of them are believed to be members of the Rohingya ethnic group, a persecuted Muslim minority, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.
More than 1 million Rohingya have fled state persecution and massacres in Myanmar in recent years and now live in desperate conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Thousands more have made high-risk journeys across the Andaman Sea in rickety boats, often headed for countries in Southeast Asia.
Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok for the agency, said the precise locations of the two boats were unknown and that it was not clear which country they had departed from, but that they appeared to have been at sea for at least two weeks.
He said the agency knew about the boats based on conversations with relatives of people aboard and human rights workers who had spoken with them by telephone, but that it did not have details about the passengers’ conditions.
“Our fear is that food and water, if they have not already run out, may be running out soon,” Baloch said. “Our fear is that people can lose their lives, and we’re talking about hundreds of people.”
The Associated Press quoted the captain of one of the boats as saying over the weekend that there were 180 to 190 people aboard and that they were out of food and water. He said the boat was about 320 kilometres from the west coast of Thailand; the AP said it was about the same distance from Aceh, an Indonesian province that is a common destination for boats carrying Rohingya refugees.
Miftach Cut Adek, the chief of an official fishermen’s association in Aceh, said by telephone that local authorities were aware of the two missing boats but that he did not know of any plans for a rescue. Other officials in Aceh could not be reached for comment.
A spokesperson for the Royal Thai Navy told the AP on Monday that he had no information about the boats.
Baloch said hundreds of refugees had died at sea last year under similar circumstances, blaming “inaction” on the part of several countries in the region. That tally includes 180 Rohingya who were stranded for weeks in the Andaman in late 2022 and never found.
Nearly 6,000 refugees — many of them Rohingya — have made risky sea journeys from Bangladesh or Myanmar since November 2022, almost 500 of whom were later reported dead or missing, Baloch said. He said the boats had mostly disembarked in Indonesia, and that at least seven had done so in the last few weeks.
The busiest time for such journeys is typically the last three months of the year.
Baloch said that while many of those crossing the Andaman Sea had been officially registered as refugees in Bangladesh, others had left directly from Myanmar. “Let’s not forget, Myanmar is having an escalating conflict,” he said.
Vast tracts of Myanmar are at war, with civilians there having taken up arms to resist the military junta that deposed the civilian government in 2021, while an alliance of armed ethnic groups expands its territory.
About 2.5 million people are estimated to have been displaced within Myanmar, more than 500,000 of them since late October as the fighting has escalated, according to UN figures.
- This article originally appeared in The New York Times