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Weeping, weak and soaked, dozens of Rohingya refugees rescued after night on hull of capsized boat

Published: March 21, 2024, 8:46am

MEULABOH, Indonesia (AP) — An Indonesian search and rescue ship on Thursday located a capsized wooden boat that had been carrying dozens of Rohingya Muslim refugees, and began pulling survivors who had been standing on its hull to safety.

An AP photographer aboard the rescue ship said 10 people had been taken aboard local fishing boats and another 59 were being saved by the Indonesian craft.

Men, women and children, weak and soaked from the night’s rain, wept as the rescue operation got underway and people were taken aboard a rubber dinghy to the rescue boat.

There were contradictory reports about whether anyone had died in the accident, with survivors saying many who had been aboard when the boat departed from Bangladesh were still unaccounted for, but authorities insisted everyone had been rescued.

“We have examined all 69 Rohingya that we rescued and from our examination, there was no information from them about any deaths,” Fathur, a rescue officer who gave only one name, told reporters. “We managed to evacuate all 69 people and no one stated that anyone had died.”

With the addition of six Rohingya who were rescued by private fishing boats that were at the scene well before authorities launched the official rescue mission, a total of 75 people from the boat were saved.

But Samira, a 17-year-old who was among the refugees from the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh who had been traveling to Malaysia, said there had been 146 people on board, raising the prospect that 71 could still be missing at sea.

She said the boat began foundering three days ago and then capsized on Wednesday, adding that her nephew was among those unaccounted for.

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“All of us are very sad,” she said. “We are very hungry and weak.”

When fishing vessels reached the scene on Wednesday, desperate refugees clamored aboard one of the boats, overloading it and causing it to also capsize. It was not immediately clear what happened to the crew on board.

After being informed about the refugees in need of help by the fishermen Wednesday morning, an official search and rescue team set off from Banda Aceh city on Wednesday evening. They didn’t reach the area of the accident until early in the morning and could not initially locate the capsized boat.

When they came upon it midday Thursday, they found the refugees on its hull, desperate for help.

They rescued 42 men, 18 women and nine children and took some to a temporary shelter in the Aceh Besar district and others to a local hospital for treatment.

Amiruddin, a tribal fishing community leader in Aceh Barat district, said those rescued indicated that the boat was sailing east when it started leaking and then strong currents pushed it toward the west of Aceh.

About 740,000 Rohingya fled earlier to Bangladesh to escape a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by security forces in their homeland of Myanmar.

Thousands have been trying to flee overcrowded camps in Bangladesh to neighboring countries, with Indonesia seeing a spike in refugee numbers since November which prompted it to call on the international community for help. Rohingya arriving in Aceh face some hostility from some fellow Muslims.

Indonesia, like Thailand and Malaysia, is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention outlining their legal protections, and so is not obligated to accept them. However, they have so far provided temporary shelter to refugees in distress.

Last year, nearly 4,500 Rohingya — two-thirds of them women and children — fled their homeland of Myanmar and the refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh by boat, the United Nations refugee agency reported. Of those, 569 died or went missing while crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the highest death toll since 2014.

Returning safely to Myanmar is virtually impossible because the military that attacked them overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government in 2021. No country has offered them any large-scale resettlement opportunities.

Tarigan reported from Jakarta. AP journalist David Rising contributed to this story from Bangkok.