Rescuers search for Rohingya after their boat capsized off Indonesia’s Aceh region

Nurdin Hasan
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Rescuers search for Rohingya after their boat capsized off Indonesia’s Aceh region An Indonesian transports Rohingya to the Samatiga District Office after local fishermen rescued about a dozen of the refugees after their boat capsized in waters off West Aceh, in Aceh province, Indonesia, March 20, 2024.
Syifa Yulinnas/Antara Foto/via Reuters

Indonesian rescuers late on Wednesday were searching for dozens of Rohingya after their Australia-bound boat capsized in Indian Ocean waters off Aceh province earlier in the day. 

The wooden boat capsized at sea near Meulaboh city in West Aceh regency, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported, citing fishermen who saw the vessel sinking. 

Local fishermen were able to rescue at least six of the Rohingya, but dozens were still clinging to the overturned boat as attempts were made to save them, officials said. One survivor said that some 50 people aboard the boat had perished during the sea journey from Malaysia.

A video taken by a fisherman showed more than 50 Rohingya standing on the hull of the barely visible boat, frantically waving for help, the Reuters news agency reported. It had flipped over in waters off Kuala Bubon port (16 nautical miles from Meulaboh), with local officials suspecting that large waves had caused the vessel to overturn. 

“Please help, these are Rohingya people. Please help, friends,” a fisherman was heard saying in the video.

The six rescued – two men and four women – were brought to a local government office in West Aceh regency, said M. Asmiruddin Alnur, the head of Samatiga sub-district in Meulaboh. 

A team from the provincial capital Banda Aceh was on its way to bring the Rohingya ashore and was expected to arrive at midnight, the local search-and-rescue agency said in a statement.

Zaned Salim, one of the rescued refugees, said that their group had initially numbered 150 when they departed from a Malaysian refugee camp to Australia about 24 days ago. 

“But 50 have died at sea due to lack of food. We only ate once a day. Sometimes not at all,” he told local reporters.

Meanwhile, the head of the local fishing community issued a written order for Acehnese fishermen to assist the Rohingya.

“Some of them drowned because their boat overturned. Many are still floating at sea,” said Azwir Nazar, secretary general of Panglima Laot, a traditional institution focusing on the welfare of fishermen.

“For humanitarian reasons, we are obliged to help those who suffer misfortune at sea, whoever they are.”

The Rohingya are a persecuted stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar, who have been fleeing violence and oppression in their homeland for years. 

Following a 2017 military offensive in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that the U.N. described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” about 740,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh. 

Now, close to 1 million Rohingya refugees live in crowded camps in southeastern Bangladesh.

Usually, many Rohingya refugees who end up in Indonesia have left the Cox’s Bazar camps seeking a better life in countries like Malaysia, which is a top destination for migrant workers from many South Asian and Southeast Asian nations

Rohingya refugees rescued from their capsized boat rest at a local government building in Samatiga, Aceh province, Indonesia, March 20, 2024. [AP]

Faisal Rahman, protection associate at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), declined to comment to BenarNews, saying he was en route to West Aceh from Banda Aceh.

AFP and Reuters, however, quoted a UNHCR statement that said the agency was “deeply concerned” about the well-being of the Rohingya at sea who were still to be rescued.

“This is an emergency, our priority should be to join hands with the authorities and the local community to save lives,” the U.N. refugee agency said in a statement.

“We hope that search and rescue could be performed and the refugees can be brought to land as soon as possible.”

The agency said it could not immediately confirm the total number of Rohingya on the boat, or whether there had been deaths among the group.

The latest wave of Rohingya refugees began arriving in Aceh last October. 

Unlike before, this time some of the Rohingya faced rejection from residents due to negative social media campaigns against them. Some residents claimed there weren’t enough resources for both the locals and the refugees.

According to the UNHCR, more than 1,800 Rohingya refugees have landed in Indonesia since October 2023. They have been accommodated in various locations across Aceh.

With few options after years of a stateless existence, many Rohingya are desperate to leave Myanmar and the crowded and violent Bangladesh refugee camps and make the perilous journey by sea to get to Southeast Asia.

In January, the UNHCR reported that 569 Rohingya refugees had died or went missing at sea last year.


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