Desperate scenes in migrant boat rescue

2015-05-15 22:04
Newly arrived migrants receive medical treatment under a makeshift tent at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia. (Binsar Bakkara, AP)

Newly arrived migrants receive medical treatment under a makeshift tent at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia. (Binsar Bakkara, AP)

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Langsa - 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 on Friday by passing Indonesian fishermen.

After nearly two months at sea, and with supplies running low, survivors told how the situation became desperate as they were pushed between Malaysia and Indonesia, with neither willing to accept the migrants, before finally being rescued off Aceh province.

"Fishermen pulled us one by one from the sea... if there were no fishermen all of us would have died," Muhammad Amin, a 35-year-old Rohingya who was thrown overboard by Bangladeshis, told AFP from a warehouse in Langsa, Aceh, where exhausted survivors were taken.

Those rescued from the boat made up the majority of 800 Muslim minority Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis saved and brought to shore in Aceh Friday, 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.

However Indonesian authorities' pledge to turn away vessels did not stop local fishermen from going to the rescue of the latest boatload of forlorn migrants -- which 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 on Thursday and children swimming around it.

The migrants were taken to two warehouses near the port in Langsa after being brought ashore early Friday by six fishing boats, looking exhausted with many wearing just shorts and sarongs, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

The Rohingya were placed in one building and the Bangladeshis in another to prevent a repeat of the clashes that erupted on board the boat.

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

Starving at sea

Khairul Nova, a search and rescue agency official in Langsa, said some 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.

The Rohingya survivor, Amin, said he believed dozens of people were still missing after jumping or being thrown overboard.

He described a harrowing two-month voyage, during which the Thai boat captain would shoot dead migrants who asked for food.

The boat captain and crew abandoned the vessel five days ago, leaving in a speedboat, with the captain assuring the migrants they would arrive in Malaysia in two days, Amin said.

But they floated towards Indonesia, where they navy earlier this week refused to let them enter the country, giving them supplies and turning them away. The Malaysian navy then pushed them back towards Indonesia once they arrived in Malaysian waters, he said.

As they drifted between the two countries, supplies ran low, the boat began to sink under the weight of all the migrants, and fighting broke out, and Amin said he and others were thrown overboard.


"As we were swimming, we saw a fishing boat, and we cried for help," Amin said, adding that he had been in the water for six hours.

"Thank God we survived, I have a wife and children in Malaysia."

However, Bangladeshi survivor Muhammad Koyes claimed the Rohingya had taken all the food and water and attacked the Bangladeshis.

"When we asked for food, they beat us. The Bangladeshis were very weak, so we could not fight back," the 19-year-old said.

Despite Indonesian authorities' previous pledge to turn back boats, Sunarya said several government agencies were now involved in helping the migrants and the rescue was carried out for "humanitarian reasons".

Search and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear whether all those rescued in Aceh on Friday had come from the same boat.

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 more on:    indonesia  |  bangladesh  |  myanmar  |  malaysia  |  migrants

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