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Rescuers save 69 Rohingya refugees at sea

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Meulaboh, Indonesia—Indonesian authorities rescued at least 69 Rohingya refugees who had been at sea for weeks and were taking them to shore on Thursday after their boat capsized a day earlier.

The refugee group’s wooden boat and another vessel trying to help them both capsized on Wednesday, with survivors estimating around 150 Rohingya had been on board with dozens swept away.

Rescuers had rushed to save the group of Rohingya after they spotted them in the water, stranded and holding onto an overturned boat off the coast of western Aceh province.

The mostly Muslim Rohingya 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.

“The total victims rescued (alive) is 69 people, 42 of them are men and 18 are women, and nine of them are children,” the Banda Aceh search and rescue agency said in a statement.

Footage from the boat seen by AFP showed men, women and children being taken to safety by the local search and rescue agency.

“I’d been at sea for 15 days, but there are others here who have been here longer than that. Some have been here for a month,” said a 27-year-old survivor who gave his name as Dostgior in broken Indonesian.

“Why did the boat capsize? There was heavy rain.”

He said he had travelled from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh where many Rohingya have fled persecution into squalid camps.

“In Bangladesh, I met someone who could take me to Indonesia. My goal in going to Indonesia is to pay someone to take me to Malaysia. Once in Malaysia, I will pay someone else to enter,” he told AFP.

Other refugees said they are from Myanmar and had tried to reach Thailand but were rejected, West Aceh fishing community secretary-general Pawang Amiruddin told AFP Wednesday.

The United Nations refugee agency’s protection associate Faisal Rahman said it was waiting for the evacuation team to arrive back to land to get “clear and firm data” on those rescued.

On Wednesday, six Rohingya from the same vessel were rescued by fishermen.

One of those survivors said dozens of refugees had been swept away by currents and were missing or feared dead.

“He said the boat took 151 people. Once the boat capsized approximately around 50 people maybe missing and passed away,” Rahman said.

“We are still coordinating with respective government agencies to do our best to save as many lives as possible.”

Local police and the regional government did not respond to requests for comment.

From mid-November to late January, 1,752 refugees, mostly women and children, landed in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, according to UNHCR. Hundreds remain in shelters.

The agency said it was the biggest influx into the Muslim-majority country since 2015.

Some Rohingya boats landing in Aceh in recent months have been pushed back out to sea as sentiment towards the minority group shifts in the ultra-conservative Indonesian province.

Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, are sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslims.

But others say their patience has been tested, claiming the Rohingyas consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.



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