Dozens of Rohingya rescued from capsized boat off Indonesian coast

Nurdin Hasan
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Dozens of Rohingya rescued from capsized boat off Indonesian coast Rohingya stand on a capsized wooden boat before being rescued from the Indian Ocean off West Aceh, Indonesia, March 21, 2024.

Indonesian rescuers on Thursday brought ashore 69 additional Rohingya who were found clinging to their wooden boat for nearly a day and suffering from hunger and dehydration after it capsized in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Aceh province, authorities said. 

Those rescued were brought to shore for medical treatment, said Supriadi, captain of the rescue ship, even as some locals protested their arrival. Six others from the same boat were rescued Wednesday by local fishermen.

“When they were found, they were weak due to dehydration and perhaps had not eaten for several days,” said Supriadi, who goes by one name. 

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Young Rohingya offer a drink of water to one of their boat mates following their rescue from an overturned wooden boat off the coast of West Aceh, Indonesia, March 21, 2024. [Zahlul Akbar/AFP]

Authorities reported that search efforts were complete.

A video taken by a fisherman on Wednesday showed more than 50 Rohingya standing on the overturned hull of the barely visible boat as they frantically waved for help. The boat had flipped over in waters off Kuala Bubon port (16 nautical miles from Meulaboh), possibly after being struck by large waves, according to officials.

Zaned Salim, one of the original six to be rescued, said 150 Rohingya departed from a Malaysian refugee camp 24 days ago, hoping to sail to Australia, adding that about 50 people had died during the journey. Authorities said they did not recover any bodies during rescue efforts, adding that those efforts were finished. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of residents blocked roads in protest against the latest Rohingya arrival. 

“The residents demand that the Rohingya refugees not be placed in their village,” said Iswahyudi, West Aceh’s deputy police chief, who goes by one name.

Local journalists reported that villagers were carrying banners and shouting their opposition to the refugees’ presence

“We do not accept refugees here. … Why bring them to our village?” said one resident.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has a long history of hosting refugees from various conflicts. It allows refugees to stay temporarily, while they wait for a third country to resettle them, a process that can take years.

Aceh has a history of welcoming Rohingya, specifically, but there has been growing resistance fueled by negative sentiment on social media. Some residents claimed there are not enough resources for both themselves and the Rohingya.

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A Rohingya holds a floatation device as he swims toward a rescue boat in the waters off West Aceh, Indonesia, March 21, 2024. [Reza Saifullah/AP]

Faisal Rahman, an associate with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) praised the collaborative rescue operations by the local leadership and law enforcement.

“The UNHCR deeply appreciates the swift and compassionate action of the West Aceh district officials and their teams in aiding the Rohingya,” Faisal said, adding several of those rescued were in poor health and rushed to a local hospital.

Rahman said Zaned Salim’s claim that as many as 150 people were aboard the boat needed to be verified. 

“If the refugee’s claims were true, it implies a tragic loss of lives at sea, as only 75 individuals have been accounted for,” he said. 

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Rescuers on a National Search and Rescue Agency boat watch over Rohingya after saving them from a capsized boat in the Indian Ocean off West Aceh, Indonesia, March 21, 2024. [Reza Saifullah/AP]

Persecuted minority

The Rohingya are members of a persecuted stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar who have been fleeing violence and oppression in their homeland for years. 

Following a 2017 military offensive in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that the U.N. described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” about 740,000 Rohingya fled from their homes across the border to Bangladesh. About 1 million Rohingya live in crowded camps in and around Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.

Desperate, many leave overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, seeking better lives in other Muslim countries including Malaysia and Indonesia. 

The latest wave of Rohingya began arriving in Aceh in October 2023. 

Since then, over 1,800 refugees have landed in Indonesia and have been accommodated in locations across Aceh, according to the UNHCR.

In January, the UNHCR reported that 569 Rohingya refugees had died or went missing at sea in 2023 while attempting to flee from Myanmar or Bangladesh.

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A child and other Rohingya sleep aboard a National Search and Rescue Agency ship after being rescued from their capsized wooden boat about 16 nautical miles off the coast at a port in Meulaboh, West Aceh, March 21, 2024. [Zahul Akbar/AFP]



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