Medan, Indonesia – A boat carrying 81 Rohingya refugees has washed ashore at an uninhabited island in Indonesia after drifting for 113 days at sea, leading to a tense standoff with local authorities as to whether they will be allowed to enter the country or be driven back to sea.
The vessel sailed on Feb. 11 from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh carrying 90 Rohingya refugees, most of them women and children, with the hope of reaching Malaysia.
But the boat’s engine failed four days after leaving Cox’s Bazar, where refugee camps house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.
Of the 90 people who set out on the voyage, eight were found dead by Indian Coast Guards who had tracked and later repaired the vessel in February.
A small wooden boat was discovered early Friday morning in waters off Idaman Island off the coast of Aceh province, about two hours away from the town of Lhokseumawe, which is usually only used as a rest spot for fishermen in the area.
“Our staff in the field have met with the refugees who said that they have been travelling for three months,” said Rima Putra Shah, the Director of Geutanyoë Foundation, an NGO which provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia.
“They travelled from India to Aceh using a small twin-engine, 100-seat boat,” she told Al Jazeera.
The refugees were refused re-entry into Bangladesh, forcing the passengers to try to reach Malaysia before coming ashore at Idaman Island.
“Of course they are in poor condition and the island itself has no facilities and is full of mosquitoes,” said Shah.
“They are near the mainland and waiting for the decision as to whether they will be allowed to relocate to Aceh or not.”
Back out to sea?
Al Jazeera reported that a standoff had occurred on Friday afternoon as local police had urged the refugees to return to their boat and leave Indonesia’s waters, which the refugees had refused to do.
“They will decide tomorrow [Saturday] whether to push them back out to sea or not,” the report added.
‘Too hungry that we forgot our own names’
One of the refugees who landed in September, 18-year-old Gura Amin, had been at sea for seven months after setting sail from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. He was quoted by Al Jazeera saying that he could only imagine the condition of the refugees on Idaman Island.
“We hardly had anything to eat and we were so hungry that sometimes we forgot our own names,” he said.
“To all my Rohingya sisters and brothers in Aceh, I am praying for you.”
Amin added that the Rohingya have little choice but to undertake dangerous journeys by sea in search of resettlement, following the violence in Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced to flee their villages in 2017, which were razed to the ground following a crackdown by the Myanmar military.
Growing reluctance to extend refuge
Southeast Asian countries including Thailand and Malaysia, however, have become increasingly reluctant to allow Rohingya refugees to land. Both countries cited the Coronavirus pandemic as a reason not to allow refugees to come ashore.
More than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in teeming camps in Bangladesh, including tens of thousands who fled after Myanmar’s military conducted a deadly crackdown in 2017.
Human traffickers often lure Rohingya refugees, persuading them to travel on rickety vessels with the promise of work in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia.
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