Around 250 Rohingya refugees reach Indonesia’s west on decrepit boat

Some of those on board made a dash for shore after residents refused to let them land, begging for the vessel's exhausted passengers to be allowed to disembark

About 250 desperate Rohingya refugees reached western Indonesia on a decrepit, overcrowded wooden boat Thursday, bringing the total number reported by local officials to have arrived this week to nearly 600.

The boat holding the members of the persecuted Myanmar minority, many barefoot and some pleading for help, sat just off the coast in the archipelago nation’s Aceh province.

Some made a dash for shore after residents refused to let them land, collapsing to the sand and begging for the vessel’s exhausted passengers to be allowed to disembark.

The mostly Muslim Rohingya are heavily persecuted in Myanmar and thousands risk their lives each year on long and expensive sea journeys, often in flimsy boats, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

Men, women, children, and babies could be seen looking to shore as angry locals told them not to land the boat, which some on board said had sailed from Bangladesh.

Young men on board held their arms out in exasperation as the open-topped boat listed to one side through overcrowding.

The local Acehnese delivered food to the boat in the hope those on board would decide to move on, according to Mukhtaruddin, village head of Pulo Pineung Meunasah.

The passengers, however, were insistent after almost three weeks at sea.

After climbing down ropes to swim to shore and remonstrate with the Acehnese, one Rohingya man covered in plasters lay on the sand barefoot, shirtless, appearing almost lifeless.

A man gives water to a newly arrived Rohingya refugee after he swam to the beach as others are stranded on a boat after the nearby community decided not to allow them to land but gave them water and food in Pineung, Aceh province on November 16, 2023. (Amanda Jufrian / AFP)

The rest of Thursday’s arrivals were still waiting on the boat about 100 metres (110 yards) from the beach, Mukhtaruddin said.

Rohingya refugee Manzur Alam told AFP the boat had left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh—home to almost a million Rohingya refugees—20 days ago with 249 people on board.

Mukhtaruddin estimated there were “between 250 and 260” refugees on the boat or the beach.

Three people, including Alam, gave different passenger breakdowns but all said mostly women and children were on board.

“There are many babies, little children, please protect them, they are very hungry because they didn’t get anything,” said Alam, 23.

Some of the Rohingya men straddled the vessel’s sides, using their hands to shield their faces from the sun as they looked for answers on shore.

A young Rohingya girl could also be seen cupping her hands upward in a gesture of prayer.

‘Allow them to land’

The latest boat brings the total number of Rohingya arrivals in Indonesia over the past 72 hours to nearly 600, according to figures provided by local officials.

“At least one or two more” boats were still at sea on the way to Indonesia, Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya rights organisation the Arakan Project, told AFP, noting this was the “beginning of the sailing season.”

Bangladesh is home to at least 960,000 Rohingya refugees, according to UN figures, most of whom fled a violent 2017 crackdown by the Myanmar military that is now subject to a UN genocide investigation.

The stateless and persecuted minority live in overcrowded, dangerous and under-resourced relief camps, and several previous attempts to broker their return home have failed due to reluctance from Myanmar and the refugees themselves.

On Wednesday, another boat carrying 147 arrived in Aceh’s Pidie region, local government official Ihsan said in a statement.

Another group of 196 landed in the same region the day before, according to local navy commander Andi Susanto.

The UN’s refugee agency was coordinating with local authorities to help the latest Rohingya arrivals, said Mitra Salima Suryono, the agency’s Indonesia spokeswoman.

“We hope the authorities and the local people can continue to open the space for the refugees and allow them to land,” she said.

More than 2,000 Rohingya are believed to have attempted the risky journey to Southeast Asian countries in 2022, according to the UNHCR.

Nearly 200 Rohingya died or went missing last year while attempting hazardous sea crossings, the agency has estimated.

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