News @ AsiaOne

40 stranded refugees will die if help doesn't come soon

The people he rescued are believed to be Rohingya refugees. -TNP
Gary Goh and Rebecca Mai

Thu, Dec 20, 2012
The New Paper

When the ship captain saw some shipwrecked survivors floating in the waters off the coast of Myanmar, he did what his conscience and the law of the sea dictated - he rescued them.

He managed to save 40 men before giving up his search for more survivors when darkness fell.

But now, Vietnamese captain Nguyen Dinh Hoa, 58, is caught in a bind.

His vessel, the Vietnamese-flagged MV Nosco Victory, has been stranded in international waters outside Singapore for about a week as countries in the region have refused to allow his ship into their waters.

The reason: the 40 people he rescued are believed to be Rohingya refugees.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, which has been embroiled in violence in recent months.

The ship is now running out of food to feed his crew of 24, let alone the refugees, some of whom are now weak and sickly after refusing to eat.

"We only have two days' worth of rice left for our 24 crew members," Capt Nguyen told The New Paper on Monday over the phone.

Describing the state of the 40 survivors, he painted a dire situation.

"A third of the 40 survivors are refusing to eat anything and many of them are falling sick, drifting in and out of consciousness," he said in Vietnamese.

He fears that many of the refugees will die if help does not arrive in the next few days.

Capt Nguyen had picked up the survivors on Dec 5 during a routine journey to Singapore after his ship had dropped off a cargo of iron ore at Bangladesh.

At about 10am, he and his crew spotted five men, mostly naked, struggling in the water without any life vests in the Bay of Bengal.

The crew threw floats attached to a long rope to the five men and pulled them on board the ship.

When Capt Nguyen informed his Hanoi head office, he was instructed to continue with the search-and-rescue operation to save as many survivors as possible.

He told TNP that he saw more than 40 people struggling in the water, but he had to prioritise by saving those who looked to be in "better physical condition".

Some of the survivors were drifting into unconsciousness after being pulled out and the crew members performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation to revive them.

Capt Nguyen and his men continued the rescue until dusk at about 6pm when he had to call off the rescue when it became too dark.

When he contacted his head office that night, he was told to continue with his journey to Singapore.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the refugees' overcrowded boat, with about 250 people on board, had sunk in the Bay of Bengal while en route from Bangladesh to Malaysia.

It reported that another nine survivors were rescued by another ship. The rest, including women and children, are believed to have drowned.

WSJ also reported that the Indian coast guard had told Capt Nguyen to drop the asylum-seekers at "the nearest port of safety", but he told TNP that he did not receive any such instruction from any agency.

Acting on instructions from his head office, Capt Nguyen decided to sail for Singapore as planned, despite ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India being nearer.

Capt Nguyen said that when he approached Singapore waters on Dec 9, he was told by Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) that he could not dock in Singapore.

A MPA spokesman said in a statement last Wednesday that the MV Nosco Victory was turned away because the ship's captain could provide only "sketchy" information about the passengers it had picked up off the coast of Myanmar.

"There is no other official documentation to assist at this point, but they do not appear to be persons eligible to enter Singapore," the statement said.

Turned down

After being denied entry into Singapore, Capt Nguyen tried to contact authorities in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia for assistance, but his requests were turned down repeatedly.

He was surprised when told about an earlier report in WSJ about Indonesia being reportedly open to receive them.

He said he has yet to hear from any country allowing him to dock.

Despite keeping in constant contact with Northern Shipping Joint Stock Company (Nosco) head office in Hanoi on the situation on board his ship, Capt Nguyen has yet to receive any assistance from it.

When TNP contacted the Nosco head office on Monday and asked what its plans are for the ship, it declined to comment.

For now, Capt Nguyen and his crew can only look after the refugees, sometimes even helping to bathe the sickly, while hoping that some form of help reaches him soon.

With a sigh, he spoke on behalf of his crew: "We are all sad and angry when we have been pushed into this desperate predicament despite doing a good deed.

"If help does not reach us in the next few days, the refugees will all perish."

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