Hungry and exhausted, 185 stranded Rohingya rescued from sea in Indonesia

Unconfirmed reports say 20 people have died onboard

Rohingya refugees gather for identity checks in Laweueng, Indonesia. AFP
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Hungry, dehydrated and exhausted, more than 180 Rohingya refugees who were stranded at sea for nearly a month have been rescued and disembarked from their wooden vessel in Indonesia, UNHCR and relatives have confirmed.

At least 20 people, including women and children, died onboard during the four-week arduous journey, relatives told The National. The figure cannot be independently confirmed.

Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group for the persecuted ethnic minority of Myanmar, said the boat washed ashore in Indonesia's Aceh province on Monday.

“In the end, they were 185 onboard. They look in pretty bad shape,” Ms Lewa told The National.

Regarding the number of casualties, she said there are no confirmed reports. “We were told many different numbers. The last number given by the captain was 16 dead three days ago. However, we are now told that the boat had embarked with 197 people in Bangladesh on November 25. As 185 were rescued, it would mean that 12 died during the journey,” she said.

The 83 men, 70 women and 32 children rescued are currently accommodated in a local facility and receiving treatment.

This is the fourth such boat carrying Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar that has landed on Indonesian shores in recent months, according to advocacy groups.

“I believe they are receiving care, treatment and humanitarian assistance in Aceh.

"The most important thing is they have talked to their relatives and are safe,” said Ms Lewa.

The small boat without any safety apparatus was believed to have left Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar for Malaysia on November 25. It developed engine failure and drifted into the Indian Ocean. The boat was recently spotted off the Andaman Islands in Indian waters and was reportedly approached by the Indian Navy.

People onboard were desperately seeking help, saying they had not eaten for weeks.

The UN’s call for help fell on deaf ears, despite the dire condition of the people in the boat.

Families relieved

Relatives and family members said they are relieved that their loved ones are safe.

Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, 25, a Rohingya, who lives in Bangladesh, told The National that he spoke to his widowed sister Hatemonesa and her five-year-old daughter Umme Salima, who are now safe in Indonesia.

“I spoke to them over the phone. She and the kids are safe now, although tired and exhausted. She said she thought they will all die in the sea. Her daughter has severe diarrhoea and dehydration. She is being treated,” said Mr Rezuwan Khan.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Monday that 2022 could be one of the deadliest years at sea in almost a decade for the Rohingya, as thousands have tried to flee desperate conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Some 2,400 Rohingya have made or tried to make the sea journey to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia this year, Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson for Asia, told The National.

“At least 119 people are feared dead or missing in the sea this year alone,” he said.

Nearly one million Rohingya from Myanmar are living in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh, after fleeing a brutal military crackdown by the Myanmar army in 2017. With no access to education or job prospects, many embark on the dangerous sea voyage across Andaman, with the hope of reaching countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Updated: December 27, 2022, 1:36 PM