By Pizaro Gozali Idrus
About 185 gaunt and bone-tired Rohingya refugees landed on the coast of Pidie regency in Indonesia’s Aceh province Monday, police said, as reports emerged that another boatload of Rohingya may have sunk at sea.
Two NGOs confirmed to BenarNews that the new arrivals were from a boat that was at sea for about a month and stranded as food and water supplies dwindled. As many as 20 of the passengers perished, NGO sources said, while the refugees journeyed south across the Andaman Sea as they fled refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Citing information from refugees, a fisherman in Pidie said they told him that more than two dozen people had died and others threw their bodies overboard.
“The group consists of 83 adult males, 70 adult women and 32 children,” Aceh provincial police spokesman Winardy said, adding that sick refugees were receiving medical treatment.
He declined to give more details.
The boat was the second one carrying Rohingya to land in Aceh – Indonesia’s westernmost province – in as many days. On Christmas Day, 57 Rohingya malesarrived in Aceh Besar regency aboard a wooden boat. Thirteen of them were minors, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
A video shared by a local resident showed Monday’s 185 Rohingya newcomers, including women and children, crumpled on the beach, visibly weak, exhausted and emaciated. In the distressing footage, some in the crowd could be heard wailing.
“The refugees were stranded because of very high waves due to the East Wind season,” said Marfian, a leader of the local fishing community. “According to their information, 30 people died and their bodies were thrown into the sea. We don’t know how long they were at sea, and we received information that they were on the open sea a month ago.
‘Like skeletons walking’
The latest arrivals were from the boat with scores of people aboard that had been drifting for days in waters north of Aceh, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a human rights group that advocates for the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority group from Myanmar.
“I just received confirmation that the latest group which landed this evening is indeed the boat in distress,” Lewa, who is based in Thailand, told BenarNews on Monday.
“Yes, this is the same boat we have been urging people to rescue weeks ago,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder and international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a humanitarian group in Malaysia.
The two NGOs were tracking the boat’s movements at sea, with Lewa keeping in touch regularly with relatives of passengers and plotting the boat’s GPS coordinates via Google Maps.
“We are extremely alarmed by the condition of the refugees who have been brought ashore,” Fan told BenarNews on Monday night.
“[W]e saw the videos of the first arrival of these refugees on shore. It looked like skeletons walking onto the shore and collapsing on the beach.”
In recent days and weeks, Lewa and Fan’s groups, as well as other NGOs and the United Nations, were pressing governments in the region to move swiftly to search for and rescue refugees trying to make such perilous and illicit journeys about people-smuggling boats, but to no avail.
“So, I think that as a region we really need to be taking this crisis extremely seriously and we need to learn from this tragedy and prevent sub-humanitarian disasters from happening in the future.”
Senior officials in the coast guard and new government of Fan’s country, Malaysia, had not been responding to multiple phone calls and text messages from BenarNews to inquire what authorities were doing to help people on stranded Rohingya boats.
Every year, hundreds of Rohingya undertake perilous sea crossings as they try to escape from sprawling refugee camps along Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar or their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar, where members of the minority group are persecuted.
The head of the Acehnese branch of the Indonesian human rights group KontraS, Azharul Husna, said children and women were among the group that landed in Pidie on Monday.
“Whether they are the group that were reported to be drifting on the sea, we need to check,” she told BenarNews.
Aceh police spokesman Winardy said police were still collecting information from the refugees.
“There needs to be more coordination with different institutions to address this Rohingya issue, considering their arrivals have become more frequent,” he said in a statement.
A medical team from the IOM was on its way to Pidie, said an IOM spokesperson, Ariani Hasanah.
It was also not immediately clear whether a group of 47 to 50 Bangladeshi migrants were with the Rohingya on the boat that arrived in Pidie.
In interviews with BenarNews last week in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, mothers of some of these migrants had expressed anguish and uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones.
Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said over the weekend that it had received unconfirmed reports “of a separate boat – with 180 Rohingya, missing in the sea.”
“Relatives have lost contact. Those last in touch presume all are dead. We hope against hope this is not the case,” the agency’s Asia-Pacific office said in a message posted via Twitter on Saturday.
When reached on Monday, UNHCR regional spokesman Babar Baloch said “the shocking tragedy was reported to us by sources directly in touch with relatives and those recently rescued.
“We still hope against hope this is not the case,” he told BenarNews, noting that UNHCR could not independently verify those reports.
He also confirmed that the boat, which may have sunk with 180 people on board, was not the same as the boat that had been drifting off Aceh in recent days.
According to Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, the people traveling aboard these two boats were among four groups of Rohingya refugees that had sailed from Cox’s Bazar district in late November.
These people likely left aboard smaller boats – to avoid detection by the Bangladeshi coast guard – before they were transferred onto four larger boats for their respective journeys on the open sea, Lewa said.
One of the boats, with more than 150 people onboard, was rescued by a Vietnamese oil ship off the coast of Myanmar on Dec. 8 and then towed to shore, Lewa said.
On Dec. 18, one of the other boats, which was transporting 104 people, was rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Last week, the captain of the boat who was now in Sri Lanka sent a message to a relative of his who lives at one of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, to alert him that one of the other boats may have sunk in early December, Lewa said.
According to the captain in Sri Lanka, their two boats were sailing close together when the other captain sent him a distress call.
The captain had received an “SOS call from the captain of this other boat, which was about to sink, and asking him to transfer the passengers on his boat (from the sinking to the boat later rescued in Sri Lanka) but he refused because he already had engine problem,” Lewa told BenarNews on Monday in an email.
“His boat was already overcrowded and he feared that an attempt to transfer them would result in everyone sinking.”
Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur, Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok, and Imran Vittachi in Washington contributed to this report.