Southeast Asian politicians call for rescue of boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees

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Southeast Asian politicians called Tuesday for the rescue of a boat carrying as many as 200 Rohingya refugees including women and children stranded at sea for several weeks.

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

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The boat carrying the refugees has been reported in waters close to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping routes.

“We urgently call on ASEAN member states and other countries in the region to... launch search and rescue operations,” said ex-Indonesian MP Eva Sundari, who is a member of advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), in a statement.

“It is disgraceful that a boat filled with men, women, and children in grave danger has been allowed to remain adrift.”

Charles Santiago, a former Malaysian MP and chairman of APHR, said in the same statement that the delay in rescuing the stranded refugees likely “has already caused untold suffering and loss of life.”

The vessel’s current location is unknown and it is unclear when or exactly from where it departed.

But at least one relative of a passenger hoping to reach Malaysia told AFP he was taken to the boat in deep waters by a small fishing trawler from Bangladesh.

Sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh are home to some one million Rohingya, many of whom fled neighboring Myanmar after a 2017 military crackdown bringing accounts of rape, arson and killings.

But the dire conditions of Bangladesh’s overcrowded camps have forced many to flee again.

Rohingya activists and relatives of some of those aboard the vessel told AFP it had been adrift at sea for at least two weeks.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said last week that the boat has been in waters since late November, and it had received reports of at least a dozen people dying on board.

Those remaining had no access to food or water, it said.

Noor Habi, a resident of a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, said her 23-year-old daughter Munuwara Begum was on the stranded boat and had spoken to her sister by walkie talkie.

“We are in danger. Please save us,” her daughter Begum said, according to an audio clip of the call.

“There is no food and water with us and there is no one to save us from this drowning boat.”

The Indonesian navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On December 8, more than 150 Rohingya were rescued near the Thai coast from a waterlogged boat on its way to Indonesia from a refugee camp in Bangladesh, according to the Myanmar junta.

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