Anwar’s sister and nieces embarked on a dangerous boat trip. Now he doesn’t know if they’re still alive

Important points
  • No one knows if dozens of Rohingya refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea since November 29 are still alive.
  • Refugees fled the run-down camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh after fleeing violence in Myanmar.
  • UNHCR is deeply dismayed that repeated calls to rescue refugees in the Andaman Sea are being ignored.
Anwar Sha does not know if his refugee sister and her three young daughters are alive or dead.
They risked their lives on November 29 on a rickety wooden boat to flee the run-down camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, after fleeing violence in Myanmar five years ago.

Mr Sha received news a week ago that his sister Zahida Bagum and their daughters, aged between eight and 12, are among some 200 Rohingya Muslim refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea.

They have been adrift in Southeast Asia in a powerless ship without food or water for weeks.
Up to 20 are estimated to have died or drowned from dehydration and starvation.

Meanwhile, 58 hungry and weak Rohingya Muslim men disembarked from a boat in Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh on Christmas Day after weeks at sea.

It’s unclear if they were part of the larger group, including women and children who are still adrift.
Indonesia has not signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, but a 2016 presidential decree provides a legal framework to assist and disembark refugees on boats in distress near shore.

The UN refugee agency has called on states in the region to launch a rescue mission.

“UNHCR reiterates its appeal to all responsible States to rescue those on the boat and allow them to disembark safely, in accordance with legal obligations and humanitarian traditions.”
Mr Sha, an Australian national who arrived in the country as a political refugee in 2000, said he did not know if his sister and their children were still alive.

“About a week ago we heard they were somewhere between Indonesia and Malaysia,” he said.

Dismayed that his sister had made the perilous journey with their daughters, Mr Sha said he feared for her life.
“We can’t track them, it’s a bad situation.”
Ms Bagum, in her 50s, spoke briefly via satellite phone to her husband, who lives in Malaysia, about a week ago but did not know where she was.

He took in her desperate, tearful plea.

“We are dying here, we have no food and no water. What are you doing there? Do something for us,” she said.
“The children cannot speak, they are too weak. We have nothing, we have to help each other.”

Mr Sha, 42, is a human rights activist and adviser to the Burmese Rohingya community in Australia.

Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist nationalists for decades, prompting their migration to other Southeast Asian Muslim-majority countries.
In 2017, a genocidal crisis forced most to Cox’s Bazar, where they live in dire conditions and face exploitation.

Keysar Trad, executive director of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, is disappointed that a written appeal to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese late last week has gone unheeded.

The association called on the government to coordinate with Indonesia to save the Rohingya refugees who are drifting in search of a safe place to live.
“His office reacted very quickly before he became prime minister. I’m not holding my breath. The (former) Morrison government reacted very quickly,” Mr Trad said.

The prime minister did not respond to a request for comment.

Home Secretary Clare O’Neil said the government had not commented on “operational matters”.
Mr Trad said help is crucial.
“These are desperate people fleeing for their lives and livelihoods,” he said.
The UN refugee agency said it was “deeply dismayed that repeated calls for the rescue and safe disembarkation of people stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits are being ignored”.

“Multiple reports indicate that dozens of people have already died during this ordeal,” the agency said.

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