Indonesia recovers bodies of 11 Rohingya from capsized boat off Aceh coast

Indonesian search-and-rescue officials said Monday they had recovered the bodies of 11 Rohingya refugees, mostly women, who were on a boat that capsized off the coast of Aceh province last week.

Some of the 75 Rohingya who were rescued had told officials that the wooden boat was carrying around 150 members of the stateless minority group from Myanmar, but an Indonesian official, who declared an end to the search operation on Thursday, later pushed back at reports that people had died.

On Friday, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said it feared that more than 70 refugees were dead or had gone missing from the boat that overturned in waters off West Aceh regency last Wednesday.

Of the 11 bodies recovered from the capsized boat, six were found relatively close to each other in waters off Jaya district in West Aceh, on Monday afternoon, said Mirza Safrinadi, an operations commander at the local Search and Rescue Task Force.

“The bodies were initially spotted by local fishermen and reported to authorities. Because the location was near Banda Aceh, the [search-and-rescue] team quickly responded to evacuate the victims,” he said.

The bodies were transported to Calang City and then transferred to Teuku Umar General Hospital in Aceh Jaya district.

One body was discovered by fishermen who were searching for turtle eggs at a beach in Arongan Lambalek District, West Aceh, on Monday morning, Mirza said.

“After discussions with UNHCR and IOM [International Organization for Migration], we can confirm that these individuals were Rohingya refugees who were victims of the capsized boat incident,” Mirza said.

The bodies were laid to rest in the mass cemetery in West Aceh for victims of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, an official said. Two more bodies of Rohingya refugees, found on Saturday and Sunday, were also laid to rest in the same cemetery.

Of the 11 dead refugees, nine were women, said Faisal Rahman, a UNHCR protection associate.

Boat originated in Bangladesh

Of the 75 Rohingya rescued, six were saved on March 20, and 69 others, who had been clinging to their wooden boat for nearly a day and were suffering from hunger and dehydration, were brought ashore the next day. 

Supriadi, the captain of the search-and-rescue ship that saved 69 refugees, on Friday took issue with the UNHCR and IOM’s contention that 76 people may have perished or were missing at sea.

He said he didn’t believe this was the case because the 69 (of 75) refugees rescued Thursday “had clear coordinates provided by fishermen who witnessed the refugees in distress.” 

“If there are still victims, where are they located?” he had said.

Meanwhile, UNHCR’s Faisal said the agency was able to get more clarity on how many passengers were on the boat and where it had originated.

Faisal said that after collecting more data the agency concluded that there were 142 Rohingya refugees and seven crew members on the boat.

Additionally, he said the boat had not originated in Malaysia with Australia as the planned destination as they were originally told, he said.

The boat had left from Cox’s Bazar in southwestern Bangladesh, where the refugee camps host some 1 million Rohingya, including 740,000 who fled a brutal military crackdown  by the Myanmar military in 2017.

“Through our interviews with several refugees, we can confirm that they departed from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh,” Faisal said.

“Initially, they were headed to Malaysia, where some of their family members already resided. Others had plans to reach Indonesia.”

This latest incident occurred amid the increasing arrival of Rohingya refugee boats in Indonesia. 

“In 2023 alone, more than 2,300 Rohingya refugees arrived [in Indonesia], with a significant increase from November onwards. This number exceeds the number of arrivals in the previous four years as a whole,” UNHCR and IOM said.

The Rohingya have been accommodated in locations across Aceh, according to the UNHCR.

UNHCR reported that 569 Rohingya refugees had died or gone missing at sea last year, as they made the perilous journey by sea to oppression in their home country or the crowded and violent refugee camps in southwestern Bangladesh to get to Southeast Asia.

Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta contributed to this report. BenarNews is an online news outlet affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Nurdin Hasan for BenarNews.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.