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About 400 Rohingya at Risk of Perishing at Sea, U.N. Warns, Urging Rescue of Stranded Ships

A separate group of Rohingya refugees are stranded on a boat as the community where they arrived decided not to allow them to land after providing food and water, in Pineung, Aceh province, Indonesia, on Nov. 16, 2023. Credit - Amanda Jufrian—AFP/Getty Images

About 400 Rohingya Muslims have been stuck at sea in Southeast Asia for at least two weeks, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is calling for “urgent action” by governments in the region to locate and rescue the stranded passengers.

In a press release published on Saturday, the UNHCR said that it received reports of two overcrowded boats now “aimlessly drifting” in the Andaman Sea.

“UNHCR is concerned that food and water may be running out and there is a significant risk of fatalities in the coming days if people are not rescued and disembarked to safety,” the statement said. “In line with the principle of non-refoulement, international obligations under the Laws of the Sea and longstanding maritime traditions, the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea must be upheld, irrespective of nationality or legal status of the persons in need of rescue.”

One of the boats has been ascertained to have engine failure, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch tells TIME.

“We are worried that the world may witness another tragedy with hundreds of desperate Rohingya losing their lives without timely efforts to save them,” he says.

The captain of one of the boats told the Associated Press that his boat had run out of food and water and he feared the 180 to 190 people aboard would all die. He also said on Sunday that the boat was about 200 miles from Thailand’s west coast—though a Royal Thai Navy spokesperson told the AP on Monday that they did not have information on the boats.

The head of a fishermen’s association in Aceh, an Indonesian province that’s a common destination for Rohingya refugees at sea, told the New York Times that they were aware of the two missing boats but had yet to hear of rescue plans.

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have been systematically discriminated against by authorities for decades, and hundreds of thousands fled amid renewed persecution in 2017. Around one million Rohingya are now housed in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where they live in squalid and overcrowded shelters. Amid worsening conditions in the camp, an increasing number have been fleeing Bangladesh through perilous journeys by sea, in the hopes of starting new lives in Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand.

Over 3,400 Rohingya refugees—most of whom are women and children—have embarked on sea journeys since January 2023, and 225 of them have been reported dead or missing, according to the UNHCR. The agency also counted more than 3,500 Rohingya who made sea journeys throughout 2022, up 360% from the year before. At least 348 died or went missing last year, making it the deadliest year since 2014.

Even those who do survive the long journey to foreign shores, however, aren’t typically welcomed or guaranteed safety when they arrive. Boats with Rohingya refugees are often turned away by local communities or authorities, despite calls from international organizations for the refugees to be accepted. Just last month, about 250 Rohingya who had spent weeks sailing from Bangladesh before arriving off the coast of Aceh province were sent back to sea by locals.

Now, some are warning that inaction from regional governments can spell deadly consequences for the hundreds currently adrift in the Andaman Sea, drawing comparisons to the fate met by a boat of Rohingya refugees last December: after being stranded for weeks, its 180 passengers were eventually presumed drowned.

Contact us at letters@time.com.