After being refused entry by several countries and held hostage at sea by traffickers, 296 refugees disembarked in Aceh Province on Monday, weak and in poor health. Two-thirds of them were women and children, the Guardian reported.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said tests for COVID-19 had all come back negative but there was concern for the refugees’ health.
“They were in a terrible condition,” said Rima Shah Putra, local director for Aceh-based NGO Geutanyoe Foundation. “We had to burn their clothes they used before because they hadn’t been able to bathe or change their clothes. They were starving … about 30 of them died on the journey and they threw all the bodies to the sea.”
According to Geutanyoe, 21-year-old Norkolima died on Tuesday at a refugee shelter. She had earlier been checked by doctors after collapsing and complaining of severe head pains and breathing problems.
Another woman, Senwara Begum, 19, and a man, Hilal, 22, died in hospital. Another four people are still in a serious condition.
Geutanyoe said the refugees showed signs of mental trauma and physical abuse, possibly from the traffickers. One refugee had burn marks.
Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project has monitored Rohingya sea journeys since 2006, said the refugees were essentially held hostage at sea since early this year. She said a contact with a relative on board explained that the traffickers held about 800 refugees at sea, releasing them in groups, which arrived earlier in Aceh and Malaysia.
Lewa said families paid roughly 10,000 Malaysian ringgits (£1,800) to traffickers, who demanded extra payment from this last group for food and phone contact with families because they had been held for so long.
“People are kept there until the money is paid,” she said. “So that’s why the last boat has been kept for months and months, where not everyone has paid. It’s even worse than the camps because when someone paid they could leave but now they have to wait.”
More than 170,000 people were trafficked from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand and Malaysia between 2012 and 2015, before a crackdown after the discovery of mass graves at trafficking camps in Thailand.
But the drowning of refugees on a capsized boat near Bangladesh earlier this year raised fears that the trafficking network had been revived.
Many Rohingya have left Bangladeshi refugee camps, where they face restrictions on movement, work and education.
Aceh fishermen helped rescue this week’s arrivals in Indonesia. Geutanyoe’s cofounder Lilianne Fan said governments needed to step up.
“The Acehnese fishermen will always respond because that’s part of their tradition, but you can’t expect that every time there’s a crisis it’s going to be solved by these non-governmental actors,” she said. “There has to be a way for governments in the region to start feeling responsible for the lives of the Rohingya.”