Dozens of Rohingya refugees land off Indonesian coast

A group of Rohingya refugees gather on a beach in northern Sumatra on June 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

ACEH, INDONESIA (AFP) - A boat filled with dozens of Rohingya, mostly women and children, landed off the Indonesian coast Friday (June 4) after a months-long journey that claimed the lives of nine refugees, according to a survivor.

It was the latest in a wave of arrivals, with nearly 400 members of the persecuted Muslim minority landing by boat in Indonesia last year after perilous journeys from cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh - next to their native Myanmar.

On Friday, about 80 Rohingya landed their vessel on tiny Pulau Idaman, a small island just off the coast of northern Sumatra.

Mr Muhammad Ilyas, a 37-year-old refugee, said the group beached their boat on the island because it was damaged.

The group was hoping to land in neighbouring Malaysia, where more than 100,000 Rohingya live on the margins of society, registered as refugees but not allowed to work, forcing them into illegal construction and other low-paid jobs.

"It has taken four months to get here," he told AFP. "There are 81 of us from 90 before. Nine died."

The victims perished from lack of food and water, he said, adding that the boat had earlier been picked up by Indian authorities who repaired the vessel and then sent it back to sea.

The deaths could not be independently confirmed by AFP.

But Ms Chris Lewa from the Arakan Project, which tracks Rohingya boat sailings, said the refugees were likely from a boat that had broken down at sea in February with a similar number of passengers believed to have perished.

The vessel was thought to have left from Bangladesh, she added.

"The issue now is what's going to happen today - what is going to be done by the authorities?"" Ms Lewa said. "Hopefully they will not be pushed back."

Indonesian authorities have yet to comment publicly, but previous migrants have been placed in makeshift refugee camps.

In September, a group of nearly 300 Rohingya arrived in northern Indonesia after what they described as months of terror on the high seas.

They reported being beaten by human traffickers as they battled illness, hunger and thirst, with the corpses of those who died at sea thrown overboard.

The accounts matched previous refugee claims relayed to international organisations, including UNHCR which earlier estimated that upwards of 200 Rohingya died at sea last year.

Last June, nearly 100 Rohingya arrived in the same part of Indonesia.

Many of the Rohingya have since crossed illegally into Malaysia, authorities said earlier.

Several South-east Asian nations, including Thailand and Malaysia, have been reluctant to take in the refugees in the midst of the pandemic.

Around one million Muslim Rohingya live in cramped camps in Bangladesh, where human traffickers run lucrative operations promising to find them sanctuary abroad.

The Rohingya fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to escape a military crackdown against them four years ago that UN investigators said amounted to genocide.

Relatively affluent, Muslim-majority Malaysia is a favoured destination for Rohingya trying to escape Bangladesh.

Many are believed to have enlisted traffickers to help them make the sea crossing, including women seeking to reunite with their husbands in Malaysia.

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