UN issues call to rescue hundreds of Rohingya adrift at sea; many heading to Indonesia and Malaysia

The two overcrowded boats carrying about 400 passengers had experienced engine failures, and are now drifting in the Andaman Sea. - PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA/BANGKOK (AFP): The United Nations called Saturday for nations to rescue hundreds of Rohingya it said were trapped onboard two unseaworthy vessels adrift in the Andaman Sea.

Thousands of the mostly Muslim Rohingya, heavily persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, risk their lives each year in long, expensive sea journeys -- often in boats in poor condition -- trying to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Saturday called on nearby countries "to swiftly deploy their full search and rescue capacities in response to reported vessels in distress with hundreds of Rohingya at risk of perishing".

The two overcrowded boats carrying about 400 passengers had experienced engine failures, and people were now "drifting in unseaworthy vessels in the Andaman Sea", the agency said, citing "various sources".

Food and water may be running out, it said, adding "there is a significant risk of fatalities in the coming days if people are not rescued and disembarked to safety".

The vessels' precise location is unknown and it is unclear when, or exactly from where, they departed.

Refugee camps in Bangladesh are home to about one million Rohingya, many of whom fled neighbouring Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown.

But the conditions of the overcrowded camps have forced many to flee again.

The UNHCR's call comes during a spike in journeys to Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh -- a voyage of about 1,800 kilometres (1,120 miles) -- with more than 1,000 arrivals in the biggest such wave since the 2017 crackdown.

More than 3,500 Rohingya are believed to have attempted risky journeys to Southeast Asian countries in 2022, according to UNHCR.

Nearly 350 Rohingya died or went missing last year while attempting hazardous sea crossings, the agency has estimated. - AFP

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