Race to help 500 people washed ashore in Indonesia

Ethnic Rohingya women and children whose boats were washed ashore board a military truck. Picture: AP

Ethnic Rohingya women and children whose boats were washed ashore board a military truck. Picture: AP

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BOATS carrying more than 500 Bangladeshis and members of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim community washed ashore in western Indonesia yesterday, with some in need of medical attention.

Steve Hamilton, deputy chief of mission at the International Organisation for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, said his teams were racing to Seunuddon in Aceh province, where the boats landed.

Two of the many children who were on the migrant boats. Picture: AP

Two of the many children who were on the migrant boats. Picture: AP

He said four boats had been found with more than 500 people on board, adding that three had apparently been abandoned by the smugglers and one ran out of fuel.

Indonesian authorities said the migrants were taken to a police station and mosques, where they were being given care.

A man who was on one of the boats said they had left Burma for Malaysia – home to a large population of Rohingya – two months ago. “We just wanted to leave because the situation in Burma is no longer conducive for us to stay,” Muhammad Juned said.

Risky Hidayat, from Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said some migrants had mentioned that there was another boat with an unspecified number of people on it still at sea in the same area.

Rohingya Muslims have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Burma.

Attacks on the religious minority by Buddhist mobs in the past three years have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War, sending 100,000 people fleeing, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.

The first stop is almost always Thailand, where up until recently the migrants were held in jungle camps. From there, they continue on to third countries only after brokers collect “ransoms” from family members and friends. Those who cannot pay are sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.

But tactics started changing in November as Thai authorities began cracking down on smuggling networks – a move apparently aimed at appeasing the United States government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

Since 1 May, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims, they say, of smuggling rings.

Now, most fleeing Rohingya are being held in large ships off the Thai-Malaysian coasts or in nearby international waters, with estimates saying that 7,000 to 8,000 migrants are currently stranded. “Tight security” is preventing brokers from bringing them to shore.

Severely confined and with limited access to food and clean water at sea, the migrants’ health inevitably has been deteriorating quickly.

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