BANDA ACEH • Five Rohingya stranded at sea for almost three weeks have been rescued by Indonesian fishermen but several others died during the harrowing ordeal, officials said yesterday, with the UN refugee agency saying it was "alarmed" at the deaths.
News of the rescue comes several days after the arrival in Malaysia of another boat carrying dozens of members of the persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar.
Yesterday's group of two men, aged 28 and 33, a 20-year-old woman, a 15-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy were spotted on Monday in a small boat off the coast of southern Thailand and Myanmar, some 325km from Aceh province in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
The fishermen took them back to Aceh and the group arrived early yesterday. "They were immediately brought to a local hospital for treatment as they were weak," said Mr Abdul Musafir, head of the East Aceh search and rescue team.
They were later released into the custody of immigration officials for questioning, Mr Musafir said.
The group said they had been travelling with some two dozen other Rohingya but got separated, according to the authorities.
East Aceh police said the rescued five were stranded at sea for about 20 days while five others had starved to death and their bodies were thrown overboard.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said it was sending staff to Aceh to provide assistance to the refugees and Indonesian authorities.
"UNHCR is alarmed at reports that five or more Rohingya refugees may have died at sea before their vessel, carrying five survivors, was rescued," it said in a statement.
It said it was trying to make contact with the dozens of Rohingya who came ashore in Malaysia this week, and pointed to "unconfirmed reports" suggesting other small vessels carrying refugees from Myanmar may be at sea.
It has been rare for Rohingya migrants to attempt the sea routes south since the Thai authorities clamped down on regional trafficking networks in 2015, sparking a crisis across South-east Asia as large numbers were abandoned at sea.
But there have been concerns that desperate migrants might start taking to the high seas again after mainly Buddhist Myanmar launched a new crackdown last year that forced about 700,000 members of the Muslim minority to flee to Bangladesh.
In 2015, hundreds of Rohingya landed in Aceh, where they were welcomed in the staunchly conservative Islamic province.
Indonesia tends to accept asylum seekers but they are usually barred from working and often spend years in immigration centres.