UN calls for urgent action to rescue Rohingya refugees missing at sea

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Monday called for urgent efforts to locate a missing vessel carrying Rohingya refugees that has been adrift on the Andaman Sea for more than a week. (Reuters/File Photo)
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Monday called for urgent efforts to locate a missing vessel carrying Rohingya refugees that has been adrift on the Andaman Sea for more than a week. (Reuters/File Photo)
Short Url
Updated 23 February 2021

UN calls for urgent action to rescue Rohingya refugees missing at sea

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Monday called for urgent efforts to locate a missing vessel carrying Rohingya refugees that has been adrift on the Andaman Sea for more than a week. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Food and water reportedly ran out days ago; it is feared a number of those on board have already died
  • Last contact with vessel was on Saturday; current whereabouts and the number of passengers are unknown

NEW YORK: The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Monday called for urgent efforts to locate a missing vessel carrying Rohingya refugees that has been adrift on the Andaman Sea for more than a week.

The number of people on board is uncertain, as is the ship’s current location. The last contact with it was a distress call received on Saturday night, local time. This indicated that food and water ran out several days ago and many people are seriously ill. It is feared that a number have already died.

Indrika Ratwatte, director of the UNHCR’s Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said he has alerted local maritime authorities that the vessel might be in their waters and appealed for their immediate assistance to save lives.

“Many (of those on board) are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration,” he added. “We understand (that) fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours.”

The Andaman Sea is part of the northeastern Indian Ocean, bounded by the coastlines of Myanmar and Thailand. It lies to the southeast of the Bay of Bengal and east of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Ratwatte called on countries in the area to immediately deploy search and rescue vessels and to prioritize efforts to save the lives of the refugees. 

“In line with international obligations under the law of the sea, and longstanding maritime traditions, the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea should be upheld, irrespective of nationality or legal status”, he said. He also reiterated UNHCR’s readiness to provide humanitarian aid and assistance with quarantine procedures.

According to UNHCR, refugees attempting to cross the seas of Southeast Asia are three times more likely to die than those in the Mediterranean, due largely to mistreatment by smugglers and the risk of disease on the boats.

“The fact that refugees and migrants continue to undertake fatal journeys accentuates the need for an immediate and collective regional response to search, rescue and disembarkation,” Ratwatte said.

The Rohingya, an ethnic minority, have endured decades of abuse in Myanmar, beginning in the 1970s when hundreds of thousands sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. An additional 250,000 fled after the uprising in Myanmar 1989 and the resulting military crackdown.

Thousands of them returned to Rakhine State in 1992 when Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed a repatriation deal. The latest Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh began in August 2017 following systematic attacks by Myanmar’s military, which senior UN officials have said amount to ethnic cleansing.


UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.
 


EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19
Updated 24 February 2021

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19
  • Some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again
  • Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders will agree on Thursday to work on certificates of vaccination for EU citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern EU countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest ever economic recession in the 27-nation bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU, where economies are often much more dependent on visitors, disproportionately hard.
With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 now gathering pace, some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again.
However, other countries, such as France and Germany, appear more reluctant, as officials there say it could create de facto vaccination obligation and would be discriminatory to those who cannot or will not take a jab.
France, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong and where the government has pledged not to make them compulsory, considers the idea of vaccine passports as “premature,” a French official said on Wednesday.
Work is needed on the details, including whether it should be in digital form, be accepted globally and at what stage of the two-step inoculation process it should be issued.
“We call for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates,” a draft statement of the leaders video-conference seen by Reuters said, without setting a time-frame for a result.
Officials said the EU was working with the International Air Transport Association, which is keen to revive air travel, and with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization.
But travel with certificates also raised legal questions, officials said, because those last in line for vaccinations could argue their freedom of movement was unjustly restricted by the often months-long queues.
EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates.
“There are still many things we don’t know,” a senior official from one of the EU countries said. “We need more time to come to a common line.”
But time is short for countries in the south, where the hospitality sector needs to know what it should prepare for in the coming months. Despite the official stance that all EU governments want to solve the issue together, some might decide to move faster individually.
Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.


UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 24 February 2021

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine
  • Researcher Sarah Gilbert: We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray, and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses
  • Sarah Gilbert: It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you have to take a tablet that will give the immunization, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout

LONDON: Researchers who produced the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine are assessing the use of tablets or nasal sprays to replace jabs.

Lead researcher Sarah Gilbert told a parliamentary committee that “we’re … thinking about second-generation formulations of vaccines” that could replace injections, but they will “take time to develop.”

She added: “We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray, and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses.

“It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you have to take a tablet that will give the immunization, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout — if you didn’t need to use the needles and syringes for people.”

Both options “will have to be tested for safety and then for efficacy as well, because the immune responses that will be generated by both of those approaches will be a little bit different to what we get from an intramuscular injection,” Gilbert said.

Kate Bingham, who chaired the UK government’s vaccines taskforce, said two injections given by healthcare professionals is “not a good way of delivering vaccines.”

She told the BBC: “We need to get vaccine formats which are much more scalable and distributable, so whether they’re pills or patches or nose sprays.”


Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer
Updated 24 February 2021

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

DUBAI: Iran has detained a French tourist for nine months and his lawyers have been denied access to him, one of the lawyers, Saeid Dehghan, told Reuters on Wednesday.
The arrest, if confirmed, would come at a sensitive time, when the United States and European parties to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal are trying to restore the pact that was abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
"His name is Benjamin and he is being held at the Vakilabad prison in the city of Mashahd. He was detained nine months ago and he faces contradictory and baseless charges," said Dehghan, who declined to give the French tourist's full name.
Iran's judiciary was not available to comment. There was no immediate official reaction from French authorities to the news.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges, including Franco-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, whom Tehran sentenced to six years in prison in May 2020 for security-related charges.
Adelkhah was released on furlough last October. Dehghan, who is also Adelkhah's lawyer, said she had been under house arrest since then.
"Of course, Adelkhah is wearing an ankle monitor which limits her movements to 300 m (985 feet) from home,” Dehghan said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday called for Adelkhah's release. Tehran, which does not recognise dual nationality, has rejected France's calls to release Adelkhah.
French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported on Friday that a person with dual French and Iranian citizenship and a German national had been arrested in Iran more than two weeks ago.


UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water

UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water
Updated 24 February 2021

UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water

UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water
  • The UN and rights groups have said many of the refugees were ill and suffering from acute dehydration
  • Reports said about 90 refugees, including some children, started the journey to seek better lives

DHAKA: A group of Rohingya refugees is adrift in a boat in the Andaman Sea without food or water, the United Nations said Wednesday, as their families worried that many may have already died.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said it understands that some of the refugees died after the boat left southern Bangladesh about two weeks ago. It said it does not know the boat’s exact current location.
The UN and rights groups including Amnesty International have said many of the refugees were ill and suffering from acute dehydration.
Reports said about 90 refugees, including some children, started the journey to seek better lives. Human traffickers often lure refugees, promising them work in Southeast Asian nations.
More than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in crowded camps in Bangladesh, including more than 700,000 who fled after Myanmar’s military conducted a harsh counterinsurgency operation in 2017 involving mass rape, murders and the torching of villages.
Authorities in Bangladesh said Tuesday they had no information about any boat that recently carried Rohingya refugees out of Bangladesh’s waters.
“We have no idea,” said Hafizur Rahman, police chief of Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district.
The UNHCR said the Indian coast guard has sent rescuers to look for the refugees.
“We appreciate the efforts of the Indian coast guard in deploying their search and rescue team,” said Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.
“Given that the refugees are still adrift at sea, immediate disembarkation is absolutely critical to meeting their most basic human needs and ensuring that their safety is no longer threatened,” she said in an email.
P.N. Anup, a spokesman for the Indian coast guard, said he had “nothing to say as of now.”
The mother of a 25-year-old man on the boat said she was worried about his fate.
“Oh Allah, save all of the people that are stuck in the boat including my son with your divine magic. Put them somewhere on the coast of the river. Please fulfill the wishes of my son to go there,” said Nasima Khatun.
“Is my son alive? Has anything happened to him because of hunger? I do not know anything about what my son is doing, how he is surviving. He only took 4 liters of water,” she said.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project that monitors the Rohingya crisis, said they had heard at least eight people had died on the boat.
Lewa said they boarded the boat on Feb. 11 to reach Southeast Asia but its engine broke down.
She said the Arakan Project has been unable to contact the refugees for several days.
“We had talked to them. But now they are traceless. They have no water or food, they are drinking sea water and dying,” Lewa said by phone.
Bangladesh is eager to send the refugees in the camps back to Myanmar. Several attempts at repatriation under a joint agreement failed because the Rohingya refused to go, fearing more violence in a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.