Muhammad Taher knew he was risking his life when he decided to leave a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and board a decrepit-looking boat to Indonesia, but the father-of-four was desperate to work.
He almost didn’t make it.
A week after the boat carrying more than 180 people set off, its engine broke down. Those onboard erected a makeshift sail from plastic sheets. Soon, food and water ran out. Passengers had to drink sea water, he recalled.
“Many died during the journey because of hunger and there was no food. Twenty of them,” Taher, 38, told BenarNews in a telephone 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 on Monday after more than a month at sea. An NGO worker at the scene assisted the interview, interpreting Taher’s basic Malay into Bahasa Indonesia.
“On the boat, we were unable to lie down. Everyone sat 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 crumpling on the beach, visibly emaciated and exhausted. Some could be heard wailing.
A day earlier, on Christmas Sunday, another boat with close to 60 Rohingya refugees – all males – came ashore in another part of Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province.
‘It was all sea’
While Indonesian police said that 185 people had come off the boat, the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, and UNHCR revised that number to 174. According to information from IOM, 107 children were in the group.
“Those rescued are exhausted and dehydrated after a month of being adrift in regional seas,” UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, said Tuesday.
“Survivors among the 174 who arrived yesterday told UNHCR that some 26 people have died during this long journey owing to dire conditions onboard.”
Ann Maymann, UNHCR’s representative in Indonesia, thanked Indonesian authorities and communities in Aceh for allowing the Rohingya refugees to disembark.
“These actions help to save human lives from certain death, ending torturous ordeals for many desperate people,” she said in a statement.
Taher, the refugee, said he was at sea for 35 days before the boat reached Aceh’s shore.
“Everywhere we looked, it was all sea,” he said.
He said he left his wife and four children in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh, where about 1 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 Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp in [the] hope that Indonesian people will give us the opportunity of education. I want to achieve more education,” another Rohingya, Umar Faruq, told AFP.
The latest arrivals in Aceh were from a people-smuggling boat that had been drifting for days in waters north of Aceh, humanitarian groups said.
“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.
Rizal Fahmi, a volunteer for the local NGO Asar Humanity Aceh, said the conditions of many of the refugees were “worrying.”
“Many of them are lying weak and have been put on intravenous drips,” Rizal told BenarNews.
“Their health is deteriorating after weeks of being in the middle of the ocean, without supplies,” he said.
IOM Indonesia spokeswoman Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti said her organization had sent an emergency response team and was currently conducting a joint health assessment with the local government.
“[R]eports indicate that 34 people require immediate medical treatment,” Ariani told BenarNews.
The IOM was also helping local authorities provide health services, temporary housing, water and sanitation for the refugees, she said.
In 2022 alone, more than 2000 Rohingya have taken to the sea in smugglers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, with nearly 200 reportedly people dying so far, UNHCR said in its statement Tuesday.
“UNHCR has also received unconfirmed reports that one additional boat with some 180 people is still missing, with all passengers presumed dead,” the agency said.
Indonesia, for its part, has helped save nearly 500 Rohingya who arrived in four boats during the past six weeks, UNHCR said.
“UNHCR urges other states to follow this example. Many others did not act despite numerous pleas and appeals for help,” it added.
‘One of the deadliest’ years
Amnesty International said the latest arrivals of Rohingya refugees highlighted the worsening situation in Myanmar after a military coup in February 2021, as well as the harsh conditions of camps in Bangladesh.
“This year could be one of the deadliest in recent memory for Rohingya people making the dangerous journey by sea,” said Usman Hamid, Amnesty’s executive director in Indonesia.
Usman urged the Indonesian government to step up rescue efforts and work together with countries in the region to help those in dire need at sea.
Under “no circumstances should authorities send anyone back to a country where they face persecution or human rights violations,” he said.
Meanwhile in Bangladesh, a senior government official said that authorities were trying to prevent Rohingya from leaving the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“We’re doing everything possible to stop them from taking the dangerous voyages,” Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation, told Reuters.
“We’re going door to door and holding talks with community leaders in the camps to explain the dangers. Our law enforcement agencies, the navy and the coastguard are on alert. They are arresting those who are involved in human trafficking,” he said.
Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.