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Rohingyas feared dead or missing at sea as Indonesia ends search

A newly arrived Rohingya refugee receives medical treatment at their shelter in Meulaboh
A newly arrived Rohingya refugee receives medical treatment at their shelter in Meulaboh

Dozens of Rohingya refugees are feared dead or missing after their boat capsized off Indonesia's westernmost coast this week, the United Nations said on Friday, as local rescuers called off the search despite survivor accounts that many were swept away. The Rohingyas are heavily persecuted in Myanmar, and thousands risk their lives each year on long and expensive sea journeys, often on flimsy boats, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

Authorities staged a dramatic rescue of 69 Rohingya who had been adrift at sea for weeks before their boat and another trying to help them capsized a day earlier, with many found clinging to the hull of an overturned vessel. Survivors told local authorities that as many as 151 refugees were onboard the boat. "When we were on the sea, at that time, we feel like we will die, everyone will die," survivor Rehena Begum, 33, said through a translator at a shelter in Aceh, her voice trembling.

"There were many people dying. Many females, many children were dying in front of us." If those still missing are confirmed to have died, it would represent the biggest loss of life for the Rohingya at sea this year, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). "The fear is for those out of the 151, that haven't been so far rescued, is that those lives have been lost or they have gone missing," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.

UNHCR Representative to Indonesia Ann Maymann pleaded "for the search efforts to continue in hope of finding survivors" in a post on X. But local authorities nixed the search earlier on Friday because there was no list of passengers. "The search ended on Thursday. All Rohingya refugees on top of the boat yesterday have been rescued," Muhammad Fathur Rachman, an official from the search and rescue agency in Aceh, said through a spokesperson.

A newly arrived Rohingya refugee shows Bangladeshi banknotes at the former Red Cross Indonesia office building in Meulaboh
A newly arrived Rohingya refugee shows Bangladeshi banknotes at the former Red Cross Indonesia office building in Meulaboh

The group of 69 Rohingya were rescued off Aceh Province on Thursday, made up of 40 men, 18 women and 11 children. Six others, including four women and two men, were rescued by fishermen a day earlier. But rescuer Rachman said there was "no additional information that we received about missing persons, and there is no manifest of the boat". "Our analysis is the boat cannot hold 150 people."

UNHCR protection associate Faisal Rahman said that one of the survivors had said "the boat took 151 people -- once the boat capsized, approximately around 50 people (were) maybe missing and passed away". Begum estimated there were more than 140 people on the boat and said many died because they were trapped inside a section of the boat with no exit.

"Many people passed away... there were two or three halls in the boat. In one hall there are many people and there is no access to go outside from that hall, so that's why the people passed away," she said.

The large room where the refugees were staying had been partitioned between men and women with no air conditioning or fans despite the heat, according to a journalist. Outside their room, the building was dusty with cracked tiles and rubbish strewn around. Local police were identifying the refugees and some were receiving medical checks on Friday.

At least eight of the refugees were hospitalised on Thursday evening. The search and rescue agency said they were admitted for dehydration. The others were taken to a temporary shelter at an old Red Cross building in a village near West Aceh district capital Meulaboh.

Survivors said they had travelled from Bangladesh where many have fled into squalid camps to escape persecution at home. Some said they were trying to reach Malaysia via Indonesia. Many Rohingya make the perilous 4,000-kilometre journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia, fuelling a multi-million dollar human-smuggling operation that often involves stopovers in Indonesia.

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