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Deborah Cassrels

Former minister demands action on refugees

A Rohingya child at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. (Tracey Nearmy/AAP PHOTOS) (AAP)

A long-serving former immigration minister is calling for an urgent and coordinated response to bring desperate refugees to safety.

The number of Rohingya refugees taking perilous sea passages to escape destitute camps at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh is surging.

Earlier this week, 174 Rohingya Muslims disembarked from a dilapidated boat in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh.

Videos posted on social media show exhausted victims of Myanmar's violent military crackdowns prostate on a beach after their rescue.

Philip Ruddock served as immigration minister under the Howard government between 1996 and 2003.

The issue of where the Rohingya refugees can find safety is one Mr Ruddock has long advocated for.

In 2018, he visited Cox's Bazar, where almost a million refugees have been forced to live in dire conditions after a genocidal crisis in 2017.

"It is the most dispiriting place that you can imagine," Mr Ruddock told AAP.

He is urging a pathway for the refugees to return to Myanmar to safety and security.

"The job for (foreign minister) Penny Wong and her fellow minister (immigration minister) Andrew Giles is to work with the international community to try to resolve the situation with the Rohingya," he said.

"They ought to be very active in the continuing dialogue with the ASEAN countries to put as much pressure on Myanmar as they can.

"The situation is only going to be realistically addressed when people are able to go home in safety and security and to rebuild their lives."

Mr Ruddock admits that doesn't look likely right now "because I don't think people have been able to put enough pressure on the Burmese".

"I don't see where a million people will be resettled," he said.

"I am in discussions with people who would be perfectly happy to go back but they don't believe at the moment the military forces in Myanmar will be accommodating to their return."

Responding to the fact the Albanese government has not answered questions on the crisis, Mr Ruddock said: "One needs to be actively engaged."

Anwar Sha, an Australian-Rohingya rights activist whose sister and her three daughters were on the boat, has not heard if they are alive.

"Unfortunately, I don't have any news yet," said Mr Sha, who is an adviser to the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia.

Babar Baloch, a regional spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said survivors told the agency about 26 people had drowned or died of starvation and dehydration on the month-long passage.

"UNHCR is attending to those brought ashore, together with local authorities and humanitarian partner staff," Mr Baloch said.

Mr Sha received news a week ago his sister Zahida Bagum and her daughters, aged between eight and 12, were among the refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea.

They had drifted in a powerless vessel without food and water in Southeast Asia for weeks.

Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted by Myanmar's military and Buddhist nationalists for decades, triggering their move to other Southeast Asian countries with Muslim majorities.

The latest rescue follows that of another boat in Aceh carrying 58 Rohingya Muslim men on Christmas Day. There are reports a boat carrying 180 people is missing, with all passengers presumed dead.

The UNHCR has called for a moratorium on forced returns of refugees to Myanmar.

But Itayi Viriri from the International Organisation for Migration said there was a strong regional consensus on the need to reach conditions that would ensure a safe, productive return to Myanmar for those forced to leave.

More than 2000 people have taken risky sea journeys in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal this year, with nearly 200 dying.

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