Nearly 300 Rohingya have come ashore in Aceh, on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, authorities said, in one of the biggest such landings by the persecuted Myanmar minority in years, after a months-long voyage at sea during which more than 30 refugees are thought to have died.
The group, mainly women and children, were spotted at sea by locals who helped them land near Lhokseumawe early on Monday, according to Munir Cut Ali, head of Ujong Blang village.
“We saw a boat coming ashore in Ujong Blang and so then we helped them land safely,” Ali told AFP.
At least one member of the group – 102 men, 181 women and 14 children – was ill and had to be rushed to a local hospital for treatment, according to the area’s military chief Roni Mahendra.
It was not immediately clear how long the Rohingya had been at sea or what type of vessel they arrived in.
The UN Refugee Agency said it welcomed the “life saving disembarkation” of the Rohingyas, and said an “unknown number” might need medical attention.
It was critical of those states that had not allowed the Rohingya ashore.
“The group had repeatedly tried to disembark over the course of more than 200 days at sea, to no avail,” the agency’s director for Asia and the Pacific, Indrika Ratwatte, said in a statement.
“Refugees have reported that dozens passed away throughout the journey. UNHCR and others have repeatedly warned of dire consequences if refugees at sea are not permitted to land in a safe and expedient manner. Ultimately, inaction over the past six months has been fatal.”
The group is reportedly the largest to land in Indonesia since at least 2015 when thousands of Rohingya attempted the risky crossing.
In June, about 100 Rohingya, mostly women and children, arrived in the same area after what they described as a perilous four-month sea journey during which they were beaten by traffickers and forced to drink their own urine to stay alive.
The members of the mostly Muslim minority said they had set off earlier this year from a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, near their native Myanmar.
Some one million Rohingya have been living in densely populated camps there following a brutal mlitary crackdown in Myanmar.
Junaidi Yahya, head of the Red Cross in Lhokseumawe, said the group was now in a temporary location.
“We hope they can be moved to the evacuation centre today, but their health, especially related to COVID-19, is our main concern,” Yahya said.
Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia, which has closed its borders as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, have long been popular destinations for Rohingya, and traffickers in the refugee camps run lucrative operations promising to find them sanctuary abroad.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a non-profit group focusing on the Rohingya crisis, told Reuters news agency the smugglers had split the group up into several boats after they were pushed back from Malaysia and Thailand.
Some of the vessels then managed to land in Malaysia and Indonesia in June, but several hundred remained at sea.
The traffickers called their families to demand payments in the weeks before they were taken to shore.
“The smugglers seemed to not want to try to disembark them because not everyone had paid… They were basically keeping them hostage on the boat,” Lewa said.
In July, Malaysian authorities said some two dozen Rohingya feared to have drowned off the country’s northwest coast after crossing by boat had been found alive, hiding in bushes on an island.