UN warns that 2 boats adrift in the Andaman Sea with 400 Rohingya aboard desperately need rescue

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FILE - Ethnic Rohingya men sit on a beach after they landed in Sabang, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. The U.N. refugee agency on Monday Dec. 4, 2023 sounded the alarm for hundreds of Rohingya Muslims believed to be aboard two boats reported to be out of supplies and adrift on the Andaman Sea. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah, File)

BANGKOK – An estimated 400 Rohingya Muslims believed to be aboard two boats adrift in the Andaman Sea without adequate supplies could die if more is not done to rescue them, according to the U.N. refugee agency and aid workers.

The number of Rohingya Muslims fleeing by boats in a seasonal exodus — usually from squalid, overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh — has been rising since last year due to cuts to food rations and a spike in gang violence.

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“There are about 400 children, women and men looking death in the eye if there are no moves to save these desperate souls,” Babar Baloch, the agency’s Bangkok-based regional spokesperson, told The Associated Press.

The whereabouts of the other boat were unclear.

The boats apparently embarked from Bangladesh and are reported to have been at sea for about two weeks, he said.

The captain of one of the boats, contacted by the AP, said he had 180 to 190 people on board. They were out of food and water and the engine was damaged. The captain, who gave his name as Maan Nokim, said he feared all on board will die if they do not receive help.

On Sunday, Nokim said the boat was 320 kilometers (200 miles) from Thailand's west coast. A Thai navy spokesperson, contacted Monday, said he had no information about the boats.

The location is about the same distance from Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh, where another boat with 139 people landed Saturday on Sabang Island, off the tip of Sumatra, Baloch said. Those on the ship included 58 children, 45 women and 36 men — the typical balance of those making the sea journey, he said. Hundreds more arrived in Aceh last month.

About 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to the camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, after a brutal counterinsurgency campaign tore through their communities. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of Rohingya homes, and international courts are considering whether their actions constituted genocide.

Most of the refugees leaving the camps by sea attempt to reach Muslim-dominated Malaysia, hoping to find work there. Thailand turns them away or detains them. Indonesia, another Muslim-dominated country where many end up, also puts them in detention.

Baloch said if the two boats adrift are not given assistance, the world “may witness another tragedy such as in December 2022, when a boat with 180 aboard went missing in one of the darkest such incidents in the region.”

The aid group Save the Children said in a Nov. 22 report that 465 Rohingya children had arrived in Indonesia by boat over the previous week and the the number of refugees taking to the seas had increased by more than 80%.

It said more than 3,570 Rohingya Muslims had left Bangladesh and Myanmar this year, up from nearly 2,000 in the same period of 2022. Of those who left this year, 225 are known to have died or were missing, with many others not accounted for.

“The desperate situation of Rohingya families is forcing them to take unacceptable risks in search of a better life. These perilous journeys show that many Rohingya refugees have lost all hope,” Sultana Begum, the group's manager for humanitarian policy and advocacy, said in a statement.

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Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Australia, contributed to this report.