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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Rohingya Refugees Adrift for Weeks at Sea Land in Indonesia

By Zsombor Peter December 26, 2022

A broken-down boat ferrying over 180 ethnic Rohingya men, women and children landed Monday afternoon on the shores of Indonesia's Aceh province after weeks adrift with more than a dozen reported deaths, two rights groups that have been tracking the vessel told VOA.

It comes on the heels of a boat of 57 Rohingya men that also landed in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago's far west, on Sunday.

Relatives of those on board the boat that landed Monday afternoon say it left Bangladesh in November with 160 to 200 passengers, said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project. More than 1 million Rohingya are living in Bangladesh refugee camps after fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar.

Videos of the scene shared with VOA on Monday showed the boat resting in the shallows as locals helped dozens of men, women and children out of the water. Lewa said several of the passengers' relatives — living in Malaysia, where the passengers were likely headed — identified family members in the same videos.

"We contacted relatives of the [passengers on the] boat in distress just to check whether or not they were from the same group," she said. "And, yes, they confirmed."

Lilianne Fan, international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an Indonesian rights group that was also tracking the boat, confirmed its landing Monday.

She said initial reports from contacts at the scene indicated that 83 men, 70 women and 32 children were brought ashore.

The rights groups said last week that up to 20 passengers might have died during the journey up to that point. They could not immediately confirm the death toll as of Monday.

In the videos, some of the rescued passengers appear exhausted and emaciated. A Rohingya activist in the refugee camps told VOA last week that the captain of the boat had told him by phone that they were "starving to death."

"We can see from the conditions that are visible in the videos that have been emerging that the conditions of these refugees are extremely dire, that there's a lot of malnourishment," Fan said.

"We can expect that there are multiple health problems that are going to have to be addressed immediately. We've heard that at least 30 of them are in need of urgent medical attention so far," she added.

Indonesian authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

Babar Baloch, a regional spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, welcomed the reports of the boat's landing.

The UNHCR has been urging countries ringing the Andaman Sea to rescue the boat since its engine cut out in early December, leaving it drifting helplessly off the coasts of India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand through the weeks.

"This was first spotted off the coast of Thailand, [and] it has been since then drifting away to all locations," Baloch told VOA. "So, we have been calling on all the states to go out and help save lives. We welcome it if it happens, and if it has happened, but these people have been out there in the open sea on those choppy waters for too long."

The Arakan Project, the Geutanyoe Foundation and others had been urging authorities in the surrounding countries to help the boat as well.

"It's outrageous that the search and rescue did not happen earlier, but we are very grateful that, again, fishermen in Aceh have been the ones to conduct a rescue based on humanitarian principles and their customary law," Fan said.

"We are hoping that if there are any other boats that are at sea that there will be urgent attention by governments in the region and no delays for search and rescue in order to prevent unnecessary loss of life," she added.

Lewa, of the Arakan Project, said another boat carrying about 180 Rohingya from Bangladesh is now believed to have sunk somewhere at sea in early December, with all passengers and crew likely dead. Relatives of the captain of yet another stranded boat of Rohingya refugees rescued off the coast of Sri Lanka a few weeks ago informed her team that the captain received a distress call from the missing boat about cracks and leaks just a few days into its journey. Neither the captain nor relatives of those on board the missing boat have heard from them since, Lewa said.

If the deaths are confirmed, this will be the deadliest year for Rohingya fleeing Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat since 2014, when 730 were believed to have died or gone missing, according to the UNHCR. More than 160 are believed to have died or gone missing this year already, besides the 180 aboard the boat gone missing this month.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Rohingya attempt the sea journey each year, fleeing persecution in their native Myanmar and mounting violence and restrictions in the sprawling refugee camps of Bangladesh.

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