By Subir Bhaumik
Kolkata, Feb 23 | The Indian Navy and Coast Guard personnel have been feeding and providing medical attention to a group of 90 Rohingya refugees and three Bangladesh crewmen on a boat that was stranded on high seas after it drifted into India’s territorial waters on Monday.
Humanitarian groups monitoring the plight of the sea-stranded Rohingyas say the Indian sailors have given them some food and water and doctors have attended to the sick on the boat off India’s Andamans islands.
“The navy doctors are on the Rohingya boat to treat the sick.
“Eight of them have died since Saturday and many are suffering acute dehydration and diarohhea. But we learn that the Indians are not rescuing the Rohingyas,” said Chris Lewa of the Bangkok-based ‘Arakan Project’.
“The last we heard from the Rohingyas was on Monday night when the one sat-phone on the boat was still working. Now that contact is lost. Nobody is taking our call on that sat-phone,” said Chris Lewa, who has a long association with the Rohingyas through her humanitarian project providing relief to the hapless refugees often stranded in hostile host countries or at sea.
She welcomed the Indian supplies and medical treatment but appeared worried by unconfirmed reports that Indian technicians were trying to repair the boat’s engine.
If that was true, she said, it would mean the Indians would not mount a full-fledged rescue mission, rather leave the boat inmates pursue their perilous journey to South-east Asia.
“We would welcome an Indian rescue effort followed by repatriation of these Rohingyas to Bangladesh, from where they boarded this boat on 11 February at a point south of Cox’s Bazar. Or else many Rohingyas will die, ” said Chris Lewa.
The ‘Arakan Project’ has confirmed the presence of 65 Rohingya women and girls, five children below the age of 2 and 20 men on the boat.
Since the boat’s engines stopped functioning six days ago, it has been drifting towards India’s Andaman islands from its course.
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, understandably tight-lipped because the Indian government, strongly opposed to any Rohingya presence in the country, has not yet cleared a rescue mission by the sailors.
The BJP has blamed West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress for harbouring illegal Rohingya migrants ahead of the state polls due this summer and demanded ‘zero tolerance’ to illegal infiltration from Bangladesh.
So Lewa said she was directly appealing to the Indian government, especially the Indian Navy and Coast Guard 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,” Chris Lewa said.
“They told me that 3 inmates of the boat died on Saturday and 5 on Monday — all victims of acute diarohhea after consuming sea water,” said Chris Lewa.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also appealed for 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.”
“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.”
UNHCR has 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 in a statement.
But now a furore has erupted over Malaysia’s plans to repatriate 1,200 Rohingya refugees detained in special camps to Myanmar. Three Myanmar navy ships have arrived in Malaysia to pick up the 1,200 Rohingyas.
But global rights groups and Western governments, including the US, have opposed the Malaysian plans on grounds this was an act of forced deportation that could endanger the Rohingyas on their return to Myanmar.
Myanmar’s democratic government has agreed to take back more than 40,000 Rohingyas from their camps in Bangladesh before the military takeover in the country.
But Bangladesh officials said they were yet to hear from the Myanmar military-led government whether the commitment would be honoured.
Bangladesh is trying to shift tens of thousand of Rohingyas to a new facility on a river island called Bhasan Char, saying it provided better living conditions than the cramped overcrowded camps around Cox’s Bazar.
Former Bangladesh information Minister Tarana Halim says this is the best that a poor, overcrowded nation could do for the hapless Rohingyas.
Chris Lewa agreed. “Many Rohingyas are signing up for Bhasan Char, it is a better option than jumping on a boat and then dying for lack of food and water,” she said.