Muhammad Taher knew he was risking his life when he decided to leave a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and board a derelict boat for Indonesia, but the father of four was keen to work.
He almost didn’t make it.
A week after the launch of the boat with more than 180 people, the engine broke down. Those on board have erected a makeshift sail made of plastic sheeting. Food and water soon ran out. Passengers had to drink seawater, he recalled.
“Many died of starvation during the journey and there was no food. Twenty of them,” Taher, 38, told BenarNews in a phone interview. The bodies of the dead, he said, were thrown into the sea.
Taher was speaking from Pidie, a regency in Aceh province where he and scores of other passengers disembarked Monday after more than a month at sea. A local NGO worker facilitated the interview and translated Taher’s plain Malay into Bahasa Indonesia.
“We couldn’t lie down on the boat. Everyone was seated because there were too many of us,” Taher said.
A video shared by a local resident showed the Rohingya arriving on Monday, including many women and children. After getting off the boat, many people were seen lying on the beach, visibly emaciated and exhausted. Some were heard wailing.
A day earlier, on Christmas Sunday, another boat carrying nearly 60 Rohingya refugees – all men – went ashore in another part of Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province.
Rohingya refugees eat at a temporary shelter after arriving by boat in Laweueng, in Indonesia’s Aceh province, December 27, 2022. Photo credit: AFP
“It was all sea”
While Indonesian police said 185 people got off the boat, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR revised that figure to 174. According to IOM, there were 107 children in the group.
“Those rescued are exhausted and dehydrated after a month adrift in regional seas,” UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said on Tuesday.
“Survivors among the 174 who arrived yesterday told UNHCR that around 26 people died during the long voyage due to the dire conditions on board.”
Ann Maymann, UNHCR representative in Indonesia, thanked the Indonesian authorities and communities in Aceh for allowing the Rohingya refugees to disembark.
“These actions help save lives from certain death and end the excruciating ordeal for many desperate people,” she said in a statement.
Taher, the refugee, said he was at sea for 35 days before the boat reached the Aceh coast.
“Everywhere we looked, everything was sea,” he said.
He said he left his wife and four children in Cox’s Bazar, a district in south-east Bangladesh where about a million Rohingya refugees are sheltering in camps near the border with Rakhine, their home state in Myanmar.
“My intention was to go to Indonesia,” he said. “I left my family in the camp because I wanted to work here and my children were still studying in the camp.”
“We came here from the largest Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh [the] I hope that the Indonesians will give us the chance for education. I want to get more education,” another Rohingya, Umar Faruq, told AFP.
The latest arrivals in Aceh were from a people-smuggling boat that has been adrift in waters north of Aceh for days, humanitarian groups said.
“Yes, this is the same boat we urged people to save weeks ago,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder and international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a humanitarian group in Malaysia.
Rizal Fahmi, a volunteer with local NGO Asar Humanity Aceh, said the conditions of many refugees were “worrying”.
“Many of them are weak and have been put on IV fluids,” Rizal told BenarNews.
“Their health is deteriorating after being in the middle of the ocean without supplies for weeks,” he said.
IOM Indonesia spokeswoman Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti said her organization had dispatched an emergency response team and was conducting a joint health assessment with the local government.
“[R]There are reports that 34 people require immediate medical attention,” Ariani told BenarNews.
IOM is also helping local authorities to provide health services, temporary shelter, water and sanitation for the refugees, she said.
In 2022 alone, more than 2,000 Rohingya went out to sea in smuggling boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, with nearly 200 people reported to have died so far, UNHCR said in its statement on Tuesday.
“UNHCR has also received unconfirmed reports that another boat carrying about 180 people is still missing, with all passengers believed dead,” the agency said.
For its part, Indonesia has helped rescue nearly 500 Rohingya who arrived in four boats over the past six weeks, UNHCR said.
“UNHCR urges other states to follow suit. Many others have not acted despite numerous pleas and calls for help,” she added.
Rohingya refugees receive medical treatment at a temporary shelter in Pidie, Aceh province, Indonesia, December 26, 2022. Photo Credit: Antara Photo via Reuters
“One of the deadliest” years
Amnesty International said the recent arrivals of Rohingya refugees highlighted the deteriorating situation in Myanmar following a military coup in February 2021, as well as harsh conditions in camps in Bangladesh.
“This year could be one of the deadliest in recent memory for the Rohingya making the perilous journey by sea,” said Usman Hamid, Amnesty Indonesia’s executive director.
Usman called on the Indonesian government to step up rescue efforts and work with countries in the region to help those in need at sea.
“Under no circumstances should the authorities send anyone back to a country where they face persecution or human rights abuses,” he said.
Meanwhile, a senior government official in Bangladesh said the authorities were trying to prevent the Rohingya from leaving the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“We are doing everything we can to prevent them from making the dangerous journeys,” Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s refugee assistance and repatriation officer, told Reuters.
“We go door to door and have talks with community leaders in the camps to explain the dangers. Our law enforcement, Navy and Coast Guard are on alert. They arrest those involved in human trafficking,” he said.
Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.