UN investigates after almost 200 emaciated Rohingya refugees land on Indonesian beach

A second group in two days of weak and exhausted Rohingya Muslims landed on a beach in Indonesia's northernmost province of Aceh on Monday after weeks at sea, officials said. Credit: AP

A United Nations agency is seeking information after almost 200 emaciated Rohingya Muslim refugees landed on an Indonesian beach this week.

At least 185 men, women and children disembarked from a wooden boat on Monday on Ujong Pie beach at Muara Tiga in northeast Indonesia.

Muhammad Rafki Syukri, the Protection Associate at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency would provide Rohingya language translators and counselling to determine if they were from the group of 190 Rohingya who were reported by the UN to be drifting in a small boat in the Andaman Sea for a month. “With prolonged conflict and insecure situations in their country of origin, it is possible that the movement of refugees to find safe places will continue to grow,” he said.

Indonesian military personnel inspect a wooden boat used to carry Rohingya refugees after it landed in Indonesia on Christmas Day. Credit: AP

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group who the UN has described as “the most persecuted minority in the world".

Despite living in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982, making them the world's largest stateless population.

Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and burning of thousands of homes belonging to Rohingya, sending them fleeing to Bangladesh and onward.

A widely-circulated distressing video on social media shows the group of exhausted and emaciated refugees on the Indonesian shore.

“They are very weak because of dehydration and exhaustion after weeks at sea,” said local police chief Fauzi, who goes by a single name.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that survivors told the agency that 26 people died during the long journey.

One of the refugees who spoke some Malay and identified himself as Rosyid, said that they left a camp in Bangladesh at the end of November and drifted on the open sea.

He said at least “20 of us died aboard due to high waves and sick, and their bodies were thrown into the sea”.

Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, which works in support of Myanmar’s Rohingya, said that the boat that landed on Monday on Ujong Pie beach was from the group of 190 Rohingya. But Mr Syukri said the UNHCR could not verify that information and was still coordinating with governments in the region. “But we will continue to search for further information to ensure the actual data," Mr Syukri said. Mr Lewa said that the arrivals were among five groups of Rohingya refugees that had left Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh in late November by smaller boats to avoid detection by local coast guards before they were transferred onto five larger boats for their respective journeys.

The fourth and fifth boats "finally landed in northern part of Aceh, Indonesia, early Sunday and late afternoon on Monday,” Mr Lewa said, after weeks of her organisation pleading with south and southeast Asian countries to help. Malaysia has been a common destination for many of the refugees arriving by boat, but they also have been detained in the country. Although neighbouring Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, the UNHCR said that a 2016 presidential regulation provides a legal framework governing the treatment of refugees on boats in distress near Indonesia and helps them disembark.

More than 2,000 people undertook risky sea journeys in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal this year, with reports that 200 people died, the UNHCR said.

The UN agency added that they received unconfirmed reports that an additional boat with some 180 people is still missing, with all passengers presumed dead.

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