Nearly 300 Rohingya who landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province underwent COVID-19 tests and received aid at a government facility, a local official said Tuesday, as the Foreign Ministry said they could be subjected to immigration laws for illegal entry.
Some of those rescued told United Nations officials they had agreed to pay smugglers thousands of dollars to reach Malaysia and ended up spending more than half a year at sea before local fishermen spotted their wooden boat early Monday. They said at least 30 people died.
“At the moment, because they have just landed, our priority is their safety and health, so there has not been much discussion about how to handle them in the long term,” UNHCR spokeswoman Mitra Suryono told BenarNews.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), another U.N. agency, said the 181 women, 102 men and 14 children who came ashore in the town of Lhokseumawe early Monday were the largest group of Rohingya to arrive in Indonesia since 2015.
Nearly half of the 297 Rohingya received rapid coronavirus tests but none appeared to have tested positive, Lhokseumawe government spokesman Marzuki said, adding that two were hospitalized for non-coronavirus-related issues.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said the government, working with the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR, needed to verify the status of the new arrivals.
“They entered Indonesia illegally, without immigration documents, so immigration regulation will apply to them,” Faizasyah told BenarNews, adding the government had not made a decision about their fate.
“This matter will be decided jointly by different ministries and institutions and there has been no communication yet,” he said.
Marzuki said the Rohingya were being sheltered in the same building that has housed 99 Rohingya who were rescued from another boat in June. The IOM said initial information indicated that Monday’s arrivals were linked to those on the June boat.
“How long they will be here, we don’t know because this has yet to be discussed with the central government,” he told BenarNews.
Marzuki said six of previous 99, all female, have disappeared from the Lhokseumawe shelter. He suggested they may have gone to rejoin relatives in neighboring Malaysia.
“One fled last month, the other five several days ago. Maybe they were taken by their husbands who were already in Malaysia,” he said.
In July, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the 99 had been designated as refugees under UNHCR protection, which means that they could be resettled in a third country.
Deaths at sea
One of the latest arrivals told the IOM that she and the others had been at sea for more than seven months, after leaving Bangladesh aboard a small boat that ferried her to a larger vessel with at least 500 people on board.
The woman said some 30 people, including a very small child, had died during the months at sea, mainly from various illnesses, an IOM statement said.
“I paid 40,000 taka (U.S. $2,380) to reach Malaysia where I was supposed to pay an additional 12,000 ($2,880) upon arrival,” an unidentified survivor told IOM. “When people died in the boat, I was so afraid and thought that I would also die in the boat. We are so happy to be on land, get off this ship, still alive.”
A 27-year-old man said his wife and children remained in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
“I left Bangladesh six months ago, and my destination was Malaysia,” he was quoted as saying. “We received meals twice a day – morning and evening – but the rations were inadequate. Sometimes, we had to fast, due to breakdown in the supply chain. Supplies used to come by fishing boats.”
The Rohingya woman told IOM officials that on two occasions groups left the larger boat she was on and sailed off on smaller boats. The organization said those boats apparently landed in Langkawi, Malaysia, on June 8 and North Aceh on June 24.
The director of a non-profit group aiding Rohingya told Reuters news service that the Rohingya set sail from Bangladesh in late March or early April.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, said smugglers called families and demanded payments in the weeks before they went ashore.
“The smugglers seemed to not want to try to disembark them because not everyone had paid... They were basically keeping them hostage on the boat,” she told the news service.
Marzuki said marine police and the navy would patrol the waters off Aceh to ward off any other Rohingya boat that might try to land.
“There have been efforts to tighten [monitoring] because there was information about 200 more Rohingya coming. If possible, they should not come here,” he said.
In June, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told an ASEAN summit that his country could not take any more Rohingya migrants.
“We can no longer take more as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Muhyiddin said at the time, adding, “Malaysia is unfairly expected to do more to accommodate incoming refugees.”
The UNHCR urged countries not to turn away Rohingya refugees trying to enter their territory, even though many countries in the region have closed or partially closed their borders to foreigners due to coronavirus contagion fears.
“Their hazardous ordeal has been prolonged by the collective unwillingness of states to act for more than six months,” it said in a statement on Monday. “The group had repeatedly tried to disembark over the course of more than 200 days at sea, to no avail.
“UNHCR and others have repeatedly warned of dire consequences if refugees at sea are not permitted to land in a safe and expedient manner. Ultimately, inaction over the past six months has been fatal.”