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.
The group, including more than a dozen 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, said the area’s military chief Roni Mahendra.
Junaidi Yahya, head of the Red Cross in Lhokseumawe, said the group was currently 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.
It was not immediately clear how long the Rohingya had been at sea or what type of vessel they arrived in.
The group is reportedly the largest to land in Indonesia since at least 2015.
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.
Demands for money
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 live in densely populated camps, where human traffickers also run lucrative operations promising to find them sanctuary abroad.
Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia, which has closed its borders as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, are common destinations.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a non-profit group focusing on the Rohingya crisis, told Reuters news agency the Rohingya who arrived in Aceh on Monday had left southern Bangladesh at the end of March or early April, in the hope of reaching Malaysia.
She said they were pushed back by authorities in Malaysia and Thailand because of the coronavirus and smugglers then split the group up onto several boats. Some of the vessels then managed to land in Malaysia and Indonesia in June, but several hundred remained at sea until Sunday night.
The traffickers called their families to demand payments in the weeks before they were taken to shore, she said.
“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,” she 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.