Indonesia rescuers save 69 Rohingya refugees at sea

The men, women and children had been at sea for weeks on a rickety wooden boat from camps in Bangladesh where many of the heavily persecuted Myanmar minority have fled

Dozens of Rohingya refugees stranded on the rusty hull of a capsized ship were rescued Thursday after the dehydrated and sunburnt group had drifted at sea for more than a day.

The group included 69 men, women and children, some of whom had been at sea for weeks on a rickety wooden boat from squalid camps in Bangladesh where many of the heavily persecuted Myanmar minority have fled.

The reddish hull of the vessel poking out of the water was the Rohingyas’ only refuge after their wooden boat and another vessel trying to help them both capsized on Wednesday.

The second boat, belonging to local fishermen, overturned when the refugees tried to climb onto it in a panic.

“Why did the boat capsize? There was heavy rain,” said a 27-year-old survivor who gave his name as Dostgior in broken Indonesian.

The boats sank 16 nautical miles (30 kilometres) off the coast in West Aceh.

Survivors estimated around 150 Rohingya had been on board with dozens swept away, according to local fishermen and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), in what would represent another tragedy at sea for the heavily persecuted Myanmar minority.

“The total victims rescued (alive) is 69,” the local search and rescue agency said in a statement, adding nine children, 42 men and 18 women were saved.

AFP footage from the boat showed men, women and children being taken to safety by the local search and rescue agency.

“I’d been at sea for 15 days, but there are others here who have been here longer than that. Some have been here for a month,” said Dostgior.

The refugee said he had travelled from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh where many Rohingya have fled.

“In Bangladesh, I met someone who could take me to Indonesia. My goal in going to Indonesia is to pay someone to take me to Malaysia. Once in Malaysia, I will pay someone else to enter,” he told AFP.

Many Rohingya make the perilous 4,000-kilometre journey (2,500 miles) from Bangladesh to Malaysia, fuelling a multi-million dollar human-smuggling operation that often involves stopovers in Indonesia.

Local protests 

The authorities took the group to shore in West Aceh capital Meulaboh on Thursday, the local search and rescue agency said.

They were met at Meulaboh port by 10 awaiting ambulances and medics, which whisked some of the refugees to hospital while others were taken to a temporary shelter at an old Red Cross building in a nearby village, said an AFP journalist.

But locals in Beureugang village launched a protest against the refugees staying there and unfurled a banner that read: “We reject the Rohingya refugees.”

Some Rohingya boats landing in Aceh in recent months have been pushed back out to sea as sentiment towards the minority group shifts in the ultra-conservative Indonesian province.

Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, are sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslims.

But others say their patience has been tested, claiming the Rohingya consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.

‘Couldn’t find them’

Some of the refugees said they had tried to reach Thailand from Myanmar but were rejected, West Aceh fishing community secretary-general Pawang Amiruddin told AFP Wednesday.

On Wednesday, six Rohingya from the same vessel were rescued by fishermen.

One of those survivors said dozens of refugees had been swept away by currents and were missing or feared dead.

“He said the boat took 151 people. Once the boat capsized approximately around 50 people may be missing and passed away,” Rahman said.

“We are still coordinating with respective government agencies to do our best to save as many lives as possible.”

From mid-November to late January, 1,752 refugees, mostly women and children, landed in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, according to UNHCR. Hundreds remain in shelters.

The agency said it was the biggest influx into the Muslim-majority country since 2015.

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