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Indonesia struggles as migrants arrive by the hundreds

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Some rescued migrants

Some rescued migrants

They washed up on Indonesia’s far west coast “sad, tired and distressed” after a treacherous high-seas journey: hundreds of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, with children in tow, in search of a better life.

They were never supposed to wind up in Indonesia’s Aceh region, said one Muslim Rohingya aboard the wooden boat which arrived at the weekend.

The 573 people had boarded in Thailand with the promise of reaching Malaysia before traffickers abandoned them off the coast with little fuel.

Local authorities in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh, also were unprepared for the sudden arrivals, in one of four boats of Rohingya migrants rescued off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia since Sunday.

Caught off guard, the authorities scrambled to find food and shelter for hundreds of exhausted people, some so dehydrated they needed intravenous drips and treatment at local health clinics.

“We actually don’t have money in our budget for this,” Mohd Yani, a local official of the North Aceh Social Welfare Office, told AFP.

But he added: “We will think about it later. This is an emergency.”

Brought to shore, the migrants were piled into a local sports centre, many too weak to do anything but lie head to toe on the floor and try to sleep.

Tegas, a local government official who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, said the migrants arrived “psychologically distressed” and “sad, tired” and distressed”.

They now face a bleak situation in Lhoksukon.

“The centre is cramped and poorly ventilated. Toilets are few and smelly,” Tegas told AFP.

“The migrants sleep on a blue canvas tarp we lay on the ground, without pillows and blankets. We really need more supplies and to move them to a better accommodation.”

But where the authorities are stretched, locals are lending a helping hand.

Many opened their doors when the migrants arrived, providing them with food, clothing and respite after the long journey.

Others around the sports hall are now helping out with whatever they have, bringing food and water and trying to strike up conversations despite the language barrier.

“It’s just the Acehnese way of trying to cheer them up,” Tegas said.

Their situation may be grim but for another group of fellow Rohingya migrants further east, land still remains out of reach.

The captain of that boat fled after it was intercepted early Monday, the Indonesian navy claims, leaving behind roughly 400 migrants on a damaged boat with limited water.

The navy was supplying the boat with water and food but a spokesman said there were currently no plans to allow it to berth.

Rohingya are considered by the UN to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar views its population of roughly 1.3 million Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and they have been targeted in outbreaks of sectarian violence there in recent years, prompting many to flee.

Thousands have braved the dangerous sea crossing from Myanmar to southern Thailand and beyond in the hope of reaching mainly Muslim Malaysia. But many often fall prey to people-traffickers in Thailand.

Boatloads of Rohingya have arrived off Aceh in the past, typically after becoming lost or running out of fuel.

But amid the misery, some of the newly arrived Rohingya are trying to follow a normal routine, visiting the local mosque to pray while their children play together nearby.

Tegas said the devout Acehnese welcomed their Muslim counterparts and pitied the persecution they faced in the name of religion.

“We treat them like our brothers and sisters,” he said.

But they remain in limbo, waiting for an expected visit from the International Organization for Migration to assess what needs to be done now.


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