More than three weeks after their boat ran aground off the coast of India, many Rohingya are feared dead at sea, where at least 160 people remain on the brink of starvation, their families and the United Nations refugee agency said.
Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and 5-year-old niece were on board, told CNN on Wednesday that two children and a woman had died, adding that those who were still alive had “no water, food or medicine.”
“We are very worried and want them to be rescued. It is getting harder for them to survive,” Khan said, adding that he last spoke to the captain on Sunday.
According to reports, the boat is currently near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal, and has been drifting since its engine stalled in late November.
It is thought to have traveled from Bangladesh to Malaysia, where about 1 million Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, live in refugee camps after fleeing violence in their native Myanmar.
CNN could not independently verify whether anyone on board died. “There are unconfirmed reports that at least 20 people may have died in this appalling ordeal,” a UN spokesman said.
Babar Baloch, the Asia spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), urged India and Sri Lanka to help rescue those on board.
“Swift action is needed to save lives and avoid more deaths,” Baloch said. “We reiterate our warning that failure by nations to act to save lives leads to more human suffering and tragedy every day.”
A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers also urged neighboring countries to “urgently rescue” the ship, according to a statement from the ASEAN Parliamentarian Human Rights Group.
The appeal 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.
The United Nations believes about 2,000 Rohingya have made the risky sea journey this year alone, Baloch said.
Many have left the overcrowded refugee camp 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 killing and arson by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state.
Life in a refugee camp has its own dangers. Fires are frequent and have destroyed hundreds of homes, while monsoon season floods often destroy poorly built huts.
Many were eager to leave, paying illegal traffickers to smuggle them out of the camp.
Khan said his sister was looking for a better life for her daughter and decided to attempt the dangerous sea journey out of Bangladesh on Nov. 25.
“The Rohingya are getting desperate and they are willing to risk their lives,” Khan said.
The treacherous voyage from Cox’s Bazaar to Malaysia can take weeks and the sea conditions are extremely challenging.
Many people on the stranded boat were drinking as much rainwater as they could, Khan said, adding that some became so desperate they started drinking water from the sea.
Rahan Uddin said his 17-year-old brother, who was also on board, hoped to find a job and earn enough money to help his ailing parents with their medical bills.
“We are very concerned about him and his safety,” Uddin said. “We don’t know if he’s still alive.”
While all countries are bound by international law to rescue people in distress at sea, it has not always been able to act quickly — especially when Rohingya refugees are involved.
In December, Indonesia agreed to help repair a stranded boat packed with more than 100 Rohingya refugees, but not allow its passengers to seek asylum in the country.
In March 2020, a large boat carrying nearly 300 Rohingya remained at sea for more than six months. Its passengers were turned away by several countries before it was finally accepted by Indonesia. By then, at least 30 people, including women and children, had died. Many of the surviving women said they were beaten on board.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Rohingya refugees in India could be forcibly returned to Myanmar.
According to UNHCR, India is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention and lacks a national refugee protection structure. Rohingya refugees are often labeled as illegal immigrants and will be deported from India.
For years, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for trying to repatriate the Rohingya.
Khan said he hoped the international community “please treat us as human beings.”
“Get our men off the ship,” he said. “Please save the Rohingya. Otherwise, we may die.”