A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the group who were plucked from the sea 30 hours after their boat sank should be allowed to ''safely disembark on humanitarian grounds.''
While not naming Singapore, the spokesperson said ''governments at the ship's closest port'' should accept the asylum seekers who are Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma who were fleeing violent upheaval in the country's western Rakhine state.
The asylum seekers are on the 27,000-ton Nosco Victory which is believed to have been anchored off Singapore since Sunday when Singapore authorities refused it permission to dock, saying ''they do not appear to be persons eligible to enter Singapore.''
Other near-by countries are Malaysia and Indonesia.
The condition of the asylum seekers is unknown.
The UNHCR spokesperson said the group should receive ''any medical or other urgent assistance as needed and for the process to begin of determining if they are in need of international protection.''
The incident is similar to the Tampa affair where in 2001 Australia refused entry to Afghan asylum seekers.
Fairfax Media revealed on Tuesday that the Nosco Victory's captain had ignored advice by Indian rescue authorities to take the group to the ''nearest port of safety'' from where the asylum seekers were rescued in the Andaman Sea on December 5, which was probably an Indian or Bangladeshi port.
But the captain continued to Singapore, its original destination, which took more than three days sailing time.
The UNHCR spokesperson said while ''we can't confirm the identity of those rescued, we have reason to believe there could be people in need of international protection among them.''
The UN has described the Rohingya as among the world's most persecuted race.
''We urge all parties to respect the principle of non-refoulement and ensure that the rescued individuals are not returned to any country where their lives could be in danger,'' the spokesperson said.
Singapore has said in the past it would not accept Rohingya asylum seekers.
The group were among more than 4000 Rohingya who have since October attempted the perilous journey across the Andaman Sea to reach Malaysia, where there is a large Rohingya population, even though they would face a prison sentence there on a charge of illegal entry.
The Nosco Victory's agent could not be contacted for comment.
Republished by permission