Nearly 200 starving Rohingya refugees rescued from stricken vessel
They battled hunger and dehydration after the engine of their rickety boat cut out, leaving them adrift in the Andaman Sea for weeks.
Some grew so desperate, they drank seawater. Others prayed for rain, so they could briefly quench their thirst.
Starving and without medicine, some reportedly succumbed to illness. Despite their perilous situation, multiple calls by aid agencies to rescue the group went unanswered, leaving the fate of nearly 200 Rohingya refugees to the elements.
Then on Monday, 185 people – including many women and children – were rescued in Aceh, Indonesia, according to Babar Baloch, an Asia spokesperson for the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR).
“Desperate men, women and children. Many dehydrated, needing urgent medical attention. A sigh of relief,” Baloch wrote on Twitter.
The rescue is a sign of hope for the group, which left Bangladesh last month, where around 1 million members of the stateless Muslim minority Rohingya live in what many consider to among the world’s largest refugee camps after fleeing a brutal campaign of killing and arson by the Myanmar military.
Video shared with CNN by relatives of passengers show dozens of of people collapsing from exhaustion on a beach in the Southeast Asian country. Many can be seen clinging to each other, crying with relief. Among them, young children and women, with clothes soaked in water and mud. Their sullen faces appear pale and gaunt having gone without food and water for weeks.
CNN cannot independently verify the video.
While the boat’s rescue has been welcomed by rights groups and the passengers’ families, its harrowing journey is yet another example of the compounding misery faced by the Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world.
The refugees’ voyage began on November 25 from the overcrowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar, where conditions are dire and women are at risk of sexual assault and violence.
Among the passengers was a young mother seeking a better future for her 5-year-old daughter, and a 17-year-old boy hoping to earn enough money to buy medicines for his ailing parents.
The boat was thought to have been heading to Malaysia, and had been adrift since late November when its engine reportedly cut out.
At different points in its voyage, the boat was spotted near India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The UNHCR said its previous pleas for intervention were “continuously ignored” by several South and Southeast Asian countries.
Several passengers are believed to have died, according to Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose sister and niece were on the boat. CNN cannot independently verify the deaths.
Details of the passengers’ rescue are also unclear.
On Sunday, 58 people believed to be from the boat were presumably rescued by fishermen in Aceh, according to UNHCR’s Baloch. On Monday, the remaining surviving passengers arrived on shore, he added.
CNN has reached out to the Indonesian police for comment but has not heard back.
Many of the passengers are now receiving medical care in Aceh, however it remains unclear what might happen with them in the coming days.
“Most of their conditions are unwell,” the head of the disaster management agency in Aceh’s Pidie regency , Muhammad Misbahul, told Reuters, adding paramedics from three local clinics were taking care of them.
One of the refugees, Umar Farukh, told Reuters he hoped Indonesia “would give us the opportunity of education.”
“I want to achieve more education,” he said.
Since 2020, more than 3,000 Rohingya have attempted the journey from Bangladesh by sea, two thirds of them women and children, according to the UN.
Not all survive the dangerous voyage.
According to UNHCR, around 180 Rohingya refugees aboard a separate vessel are feared dead after family members lost contact with those on board.
The second boat also started its journey in late November, and began to break apart in early December, UNHCR said in a statement, citing unconfirmed reports.
According to Baloch, some 2,000 Rohingya have taken the risky sea journey in 2022 alone. Of that number, nearly 200 have been reported missing, he added.
If reports of the 180 feared dead are confirmed, it would make this year one of the deadliest for the persecuted group seeking refuge in a third country, Baloch said.
“I humbly appeal to the world to not let the Rohingya die,” said Khan. “Give us at least some basic human rights that we deserve.”