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More Burmese Boat People Rescued off Indonesia

  • Katie Hamann

The Indonesia navy has rescued another boat load of suspected Burmese Rohingya refugees off the coast of Sumatra in the north west of the country. The vessel was reported to be carrying 198 men and had been adrift for at least 21 days. Some of the passengers have been taken to hospitals in the province of Aceh, suffering from severe dehydration and starvation. The men claim to be part of a group of 1,000 Rohingya refugees, dragged out to sea by Thai security forces in early January.

Measuring just 12 meters, the tightly packed vessel was spotted by Indonesian fisherman late on Monday local time. Adrift with no engine, the people on board told rescuers they had been at sea for at least three weeks and had run out of food and water.

A navy spokesman says at least 50 of the men have been hospitalized in Aceh, suffering severe dehydration and starvation. A number of passengers are reported to have died during the perilous journey.

Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Teuku Faizasyah says a preliminary investigation will begin on Wednesday.

"Their health situation is not very good and the local authority has provided them with sufficient medical treatment," he said. "Our priority at this stage is to provide them with humanitarian assistance."

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in mostly Buddhist Burma, are not recognized by the Burmese military regime. There are thought to be at least one million living in Burma but many thousands have fled across the border into Bangladesh.

The latest boatload is the second to arrive in Indonesia in recent weeks. Both groups claim to have passed through Thailand, where, they say, they were beaten and tortured by Thai security forces before being dragged out to sea.

They say the Thai authorities abandoned them to die at sea with no engines and no food or water. Thailand has repeatedly denied these accusations.

Indonesia has said the men are economic refugees and will be deported. The men say they will be imprisoned or killed if they are returned to Burma. Faizasyah says the International Office of Migration has also interviewed the group and each case will be assessed individually.

"We also involved IOM in the interview process in order to allow an international organisation to understand their motive and understand their story," he said. "I think we will treat each case separately."

The fate of the first boatload is expected to be announced later this week.