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Refugee rescue off Indonesian coast highlights plight of Rohingya minority

Rohingya children waiting for evacuation arrive via boat at a port in North Aceh, Indonesia, on Dec. 31. (Antara Foto/Reuters)

The wooden skiff with a busted engine drifted for days before Indonesian fishermen spotted it in the rough waters of the Andaman Sea earlier this week.

Aboard the leaky vessel, more than 50 miles off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province, were more than 100 refugees from the largely stateless Rohingya community. Most of the passengers were women and children, according to local fishermen who rescued the boat, and they were hungry, sick and desperate for shelter.

Indonesian authorities initially refused to allow the passengers to disembark, pledging instead to repair the boat and then send it back out to sea. But amid an outcry from rights groups, the United Nations and local residents, the government relented and on Friday finally brought the refugees ashore.

The 120 passengers — including 60 women, 51 children and nine men — were transported to a warehouse in the coastal town of Lhokseumawe, officials said, where they would be protected from heavy monsoon rains and screened for the coronavirus.

The decision to welcome the passengers “was taken after considering the emergency condition of the refugees on that boat,” the head of Indonesia’s national task force on refugees, Armed Wijaya, told Agence France-Presse.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the U.N.'s 1951 Refugee Convention. But a presidential regulation includes provisions for the government to rescue refugees on boats in distress near Indonesia and help them disembark, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Rohingya have faced violence, persecution and forced displacement for decades,” UNHCR said in a statement this week.

It added: “All those seeking international protection must be allowed safe harbor and granted access to asylum procedures and humanitarian aid.”

The maritime rescue of scores of Rohingya was a reminder, rights groups said, of the ongoing plight of the persecuted Muslim minority, whose members were targeted in an ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar security forces in 2017.

It was also a reflection of what the U.N. refugee agency says is a growing trend: More Rohingya refugees, many of whom now live in packed, squalid camps in Bangladesh, are taking risky sea journeys to escape those conditions and seek better lives.

According to UNHCR, 2020 was the deadliest year for refugee journeys across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea since the agency began monitoring casualties in the region, with more than 200 people dead or missing. At least 3,000 Rohingya attempted sea voyages from January 2020 to June 2021, the agency said, and more than two-thirds of the passengers were women and children.

The Bay of Bengal forms the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean and shares borders with Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine state in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country, when the military launched what it said was a clearance operation targeting local militants.

Rights groups have since accused Myanmar security forces of a systematic campaign of rape, murder and the destruction of Rohingya villages, in what the U.N. said appeared to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Most of those embarking on sea voyages set out from Bangladesh, where close to a million Rohingya now live in a sprawling camp settlement in the eastern port city of Cox’s Bazar. There, searing poverty and growing insecurity have prompted thousands of Rohingya to take their chances at sea.

Another 20,000 Rohingya have been relocated by Bangladeshi authorities to the tiny island of Bhasan Char, where Human Rights Watch says refugees face “severe movement restrictions, food shortages, abuse by security forces, and inadequate education, health care, and livelihood opportunities.”

“Hundreds have attempted to escape, some even drowning in the process, while those caught have been detained and beaten,” the New York-based rights group said in November.

According to the U.N., smugglers charge as much as $5,000 for a single spot on dilapidated boats. And more women are now taking the voyage amid a rise in arranged marriages with Rohingya men already living abroad — and who are willing to pay to their way.

“Many women and girls express the view that entering into these marriages is a pathway to a better life and a way to support their families,” the U.N. said in a June report.

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