Dozens of Rohingya rescued from stricken vessel after weeks adrift at sea, but fears grow for those still aboard
After spending more than a month adrift on a stricken boat without food or water, dozens of starving Rohingya have been rescued in Indonesia, the United Nations refugee agency said Sunday, offering a glimmer of hope for the persecuted group who fled their refugee camps last month in search of a better life.
Babar Baloch, an Asia spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said 58 people believed to be from the boat were rescued in Aceh, though fears remain for the lives of an estimated 130 more – including many women and children – who are still stranded aboard the vessel.
“Some indications suggest local Indonesian fishermen may have done the rescue,” said Baloch. “We still are worried about (the remaining persons’) lives. Hoping they would be rescued soon.”
CNN has reached out to the Indonesian police for comment but has not heard back.
The boat was traveling from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, where around 1 million members of the stateless Muslim minority Rohingya live in refugee camps after fleeing a brutal campaign of killing and arson by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state.
At different points in its voyage, the boat was spotted near India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Family members and aid agencies have been warning for weeks that those on board the vessel are on the brink of starvation after their food and water ran out. The UNHCR said its previous pleas for intervention were “continuously ignored” by several South and Southeast Asian countries.
The rescue comes just one day after the UN agency said around 180 Rohingya refugees aboard a separate vessel missing at sea are now feared dead.
The second boat also started its “ill-fated” journey in late November, and began to break apart in early December, the UNHCR said in a statement, citing unconfirmed reports.
“Relatives have lost contact. Those last in touch presume all are dead,” the statement added. “We hope against hope this is not the case.”
Amnesty International on Saturday appealed to the Indonesian government to assist with the rescue and disembarkation of the passengers on both boats.
“Many people, in Indonesia, Australia, and all around the world, are just ready to celebrate Christmas. The spirit of humanity that shows during Christmas must prevail in time like this,” it said in a statement.
“We also urge the Indonesian government to lead a regional initiative to resolve the refugee crisis.”
Since 2020, more than 3,000 Rohingya have attempted the risky journey from Bangladesh by sea, according to the UN. Two thirds of those fleeing are women and children, it added.
Many seek safety from the overcrowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, where conditions are dire and women are at risk of sexual assault and violence.
While all countries are bound by international law to rescue people in distress at sea, swift action is not always forthcoming – particularly where Rohingya refugees are concerned.
Passengers have been turned away from some countries, while women have reported being assaulted during the journey.
According to Baloch, some 2,000 Rohingya have taken the risky sea journey in 2022 alone. Of that number, nearly 200 have been reported missing, he added.
If reports of the 180 feared dead are confirmed, it would make this year one of the deadliest for the persecuted group seeking refuge in a third country, Baloch said.
“We hope against hope that the missing are still alive somewhere out there,” he added. “But if these fears are true, this will make it a tragic year of huge proportions involving desperate people.”