Desperate scenes in Rohingya, Bangladeshi migrant boat rescued off Indonesia

HUNGRY. A child crying at the refugee camp for Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants in Kuala Langsa, Aceh, on May 15, 2015. Photo by EPA

HUNGRY. A child crying at the refugee camp for Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants in Kuala Langsa, Aceh, on May 15, 2015.

Photo by EPA

LANGSA, Indonesia – Desperate migrants facing certain death as their overcrowded boat began sinking fought for space on the stricken vessel, throwing some people overboard before they were plucked to safety Friday, May 15, by passing Indonesian fishermen.

The vessel containing about 700 Muslim minority Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, which authorities say was turned away from Malaysian waters, is just the latest horror story to emerge from a human-trafficking crisis gripping Southeast Asia.

The region is facing mounting calls to address the problem but hopes of finding a coordinated solution look dim with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand vowing to turn back stricken boats and Myanmar threatening to boycott a planned regional summit on the issue. (READ: Southeast Asia gov'ts told: rescue migrants at sea)

However Indonesian authorities' pledge to turn away vessels did not stop local fishermen from going to the rescue of the latest boatload of forlorn, emaciated migrants – who included 61 children – to arrive in the country's waters.

Officials described harrowing scenes on the packed boat, with the vessel half under water by the time it was found off Aceh province late Thursday and children swimming around it. The migrants had been at sea for two months, authorities said.

Pictures showed the migrants, who were taken to a warehouse in Langsa after being brought ashore early Friday by 6 fishing boats, looking exhausted with many wearing just shorts and sarongs.

"They were killing each other, throwing people overboard," said Sunarya, police chief in Langsa. "Because (the boat) was overcapacity, some people had to go and probably they were defending themselves."

Khairul Nova, a search and rescue agency official in Langsa, said the migrants began jumping from the listing boat when they saw the local fishermen approaching, desperate to be rescued.

"Their condition is generally bad, some of them have died at sea," he said, without giving further details. "They were starving at sea, they fought among themselves."

He said that some had sustained injuries to their heads, arms and legs and had been taken to hospital.

MIGRANTS. Ethnic Muslim Rohingya migrants, believed to have come from Myanmar and Bangladesh, on an abandoned boat drifting in the Andaman Sea close to Malaysia, southern Thailand, 14 May 2015. Photo by EPA.

MIGRANTS. Ethnic Muslim Rohingya migrants, believed to have come from Myanmar and Bangladesh, on an abandoned boat drifting in the Andaman Sea close to Malaysia, southern Thailand, 14 May 2015. Photo by EPA.

Turned away twice

Sahidul Islam, a 17-year-old teenage boy who said he was a Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, told Rappler the harrowing experience they suffered over the past few days. 

After almost two months at sea, he said, a few days ago the captain of the boat told them they would soon arrive in Malaysia.  

"From the ocean, we could see trees," he said. 

But the captain got on a speedboat and left them.

"After the captain left, an Indonesian navy ship arrived and gave us food and drinks," he continued. "And then we were told to go.

"And when we could not see the trees anymore, the boat engine suddenly died. 

"We were adrift at sea for two days. But it seems we were drifting towards Malaysia. Then we were given food and drinks by the Malaysian navy.

"But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, our ship was pulled out to sea by the Malaysian navy. 

"The women and children were crying, because the engine was dead and water was beginning to enter the boat.

"The Bangladeshis suddenly wanted to take our food, causing fights. There are more of them, and they beat us with wooden planks, machetes, knives. 

"Many of the Rohingya jumped into the sea, including women and children. Some of us were also thrown overboard by the Bangladeshis.

"I was floating in the water for 6 hours." 

MOTHER AND CHILD. A mother and her baby inside the refugee camp at Kuala Langsa. Photo by EPA

MOTHER AND CHILD. A mother and her baby inside the refugee camp at Kuala Langsa.

Photo by EPA

'Humanitarian reasons' 

The boat was about 50 kilometers off the coast when it was spotted by fishermen, Sunarya said.

Despite Indonesian authorities' previous pledge to turn back boats, Sunarya said several government agencies were now involved in helping the rescued migrants.

"It is for humanitarian reasons. Whoever they are, we should help because the boat was sinking and there were children swimming (around it)," he added.

Police said the boat was carrying 432 Bangladeshi men and the rest were Rohingya men, women and children, who face state-sanctioned discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

The same day that those migrants were saved, 47 more people from another vessel were rescued not far down the coast after the hungry passengers leapt into the water pleading with local fishing boats to help them.

The new arrivals brought the total number of migrants sheltering in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island and across the Malacca Strait from Malaysia, to more than 1,300. (READ: Rescued Rohingya in Aceh: 'We do not have a home')

The horror story in Indonesia only added to the sense of crisis in Southeast Asia. A boat carrying 300 Rohingya was discovered in Thai waters on Thursday, and among its passengers were many children and women who wept as they begged for food and water.

The boat left Thai waters early Friday after authorities repaired its engine and provided some food, with officials saying it was headed for Aceh. – Reports from Agence France-Presse and Nurdin Hasan/Rappler.com