UN agencies fear about 70 missing or dead from capsized Rohingya refugee boat

UN agencies fear about 70 missing or dead from capsized Rohingya refugee boat Photo: AP

About 70 Muslim Rohingya refugees are feared missing or dead from a boat that made a grueling sea voyage from Bangladesh and sank off Indonesia’s coast this week with 75 survivors, U.N. agencies said.

A statement issued jointly by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and the International Office for Migration, or IOM, said they were “extremely concerned about the scale of potential loss of life,” saying that accounts from survivors indicated about 150 people originally were aboard.

That likely would have included a crew of about five people, who apparently abandoned the vessel and whose whereabouts are unknown. Two survivors told The Associated Press on Friday that the captain and four crew abandoned the boat for another one when the refugee vessel started to sink.

Indonesian fishermen raised the alarm about the stricken vessel Wednesday when they started rescuing its passengers, and an Indonesian search and rescue ship on Thursday pulled remaining people from the capsized hull about 22 kilometers (14 miles) off the western coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province.

The U.N. joint statement did not specify the exact number of people believed lost, but a website maintained by UNHCR said 75 people were “reported dead or missing” from a boat whose details match the one that capsized Wednesday.

“If confirmed this would be the biggest loss of life so far this year,” said the statement, referring to a steady stream of boats carrying Rohingya seeking to escape crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

There has been a notable increase in Rohingya refugee arrivals in Indonesia over the past year. The 2,300 refugees who arrived in 2023 were more than the previous four years combined, the statement said.

The survivors from the boat are 44 men, 22 women and nine children. A few were taken to a local hospital for treatment but most were sent to a temporary shelter in the Aceh’s Barat district. Several told UNHCR workers they had lost family members on the journey.

“In one case, there was a child whose parents and siblings died during the trip,” Faisal Rahman, a UNHCR staff member in Aceh, said Friday. “There was another case, a husband whose wife and child died. Also, children whose mothers have died. So there were several families who said their relatives had disappeared or died at sea,”

Soliya Begum, a 18-year-old survivor, told The Associated Press the captain scuttled the boat and fled to another one with his crew when it started taking on water. Her account could not be immediately confirmed. Sometimes people purposely sink refugee boats to force rescuers from destination nations to take the passengers ashore, but usually such action is taken closer to land.
Another survivor, Akram Ullah, 30, told the AP that the boat had left Bangladesh on March 9 and that its captain and at least some of its crew were Indonesian. He also said the captain and four other crew members fled the boat as it was starting to sink.

About 1 million Rohingya from Myanmar are refugees in Bangladesh. They include about 740,000 who fled in 2017 to escape a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by Myanmar security forces, who were accused of committing mass rapes and killings and burning thousands of homes. The Rohingya minority in Myanmar faces widespread discrimination and most are denied citizenship.

With inadequate water, sanitation, and health care, life is hard in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. which are susceptible to fire, flood and outbreaks of disease. There are few opportunities for meaningful work and violent criminal gangs terrorize residents.

The aid agency Save the Childfren said the continuing sea voyages reflect the dire situation in the camps in Bangladesh. It said 250 unaccompanied children were among the Rohingya who arrived in Indonesia in the last three months of last year.

“The presence of unaccompanied children in Aceh is alarming and suggests that Rohingya families are desperate enough to send their children away in search of a better life,” the group’s temporary Indonesia director Dessy Kurwiany Ukar said.

The group said other countries in the region besides Indonesia should share the responsibility for taking in Rohingya refugees.-AP