The rescue of hundreds of Rohingya refugees by fishers and local authorities in Indonesia's Aceh province was praised Tuesday as "an act of humanity" by United Nations officials, while relatives of around 180 Rohingya on another vessel that's been missing for weeks feared that all aboard had perished.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that "Indonesia has helped to save 472 people in the past six weeks from four boats, showing its commitment and respect of basic humanitarian principles for people who face persecution and conflict."
"We feel like we got a new world today... We could see their faces again. It's really a moment of joy for all of us."
"UNHCR urges other states to follow this example. Many others did not act despite numerous pleas and appeals for help," the Geneva-based agency added. "States in the region must fulfill their legal obligations by saving people on boats in distress to avoid further misery and deaths."
Ann Maymann, the UNHCR representative in Indonesia, said in a statement that "we welcome this act of humanity by local communities and authorities in Indonesia."
"These actions help to save human lives from certain death, ending torturous ordeals for many desperate people," she added.
The Syndey Morning Heraldreports residents of Ladong, a fishing village in Aceh, rushed to help 58 Malaysia-bound Rohingya men who arrived Sunday in a rickety wooden boat, many of them severely dehydrated and starving.
The following day, 174 more starving Rohingya men, women, and children, were helped ashore by local authorities and fishers after more than a month at sea.
Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, whose 27-year-old sister Hatamonesa was aboard the boat with her 5-year-old daughter, told Pakistan's Arab News that "we feel like we got a new world today."
“We could see their faces again. It's really a moment of joy for all of us," he said of his family. Speaking of his sister, he added that "she thought that she would die in the voyage at sea."
Babar Baloch, the UNHCR regional spokesperson in Bangkok, stated that 26 people had died aboard the rescued vessel, which left Bangladesh a month ago.
"We were raising alarm about this boat in early December because we had information that it was in the regional waters at least at the end of November," he said. "So when we first got reports that it was somewhere near the coast of Thailand, we approached authorities asking them to help, then when it was moving towards Indonesia and Malaysia we did the same."
"After its engine failure and it was drifting in the sea, there were reports of this boat being spotted close to Indian waters and we approached and asked them as well and we were also in touch with authorities in Sri Lanka," Baloch continued.
"Currently as we speak, the only countries in the region that have acted are Indonesia, in big numbers, and Sri Lanka as well."
According to the BBC, the Indian navy appears to have towed the boat into Indonesian waters after giving its desperate passengers some food and water. The boat drifted for another six days before it was allowed to land.
"Currently as we speak, the only countries in the region that have acted are Indonesia, in big numbers, and Sri Lanka as well," Baloch said. "It is an act in support of humanity, there's no other way to describe it."
Relatives of around 180 other Rohingya who left Bangladesh on December 2 said Tuesday that they fear the overcrowded vessel has sunk in the Andaman Sea. Mohammad Noman, a resident of a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, toldThe Guardian that his sister was aboard the boat with her two daughters, who are 5 and 3 years old.
"Every day we called up the boat two or three times on the boatman's satellite phone to find out if my sister and her two daughters were all right. Since December 8, I have failed to get access to that phone," he said. "I know some other people in Cox's Bazar who made phone calls to the boat every day and stayed in contact with their relatives there. None of them has succeeded to reach the phone after December 8."
The captain of another vessel transporting Rohingya refugees said he saw the distressed boat swept up in stormy seas sometime during the second week of December.
"It was around 2:00 am when a strong wind began blowing and big waves surfaced on the sea. [Their] boat began swaying wildly, we could gauge from a flashlight they were pointing at us," he told The Guardian. "After some time, we could not see the flashlight anymore. We believe the boat drowned then."
More than a million Rohingya Muslims are crowded into squalid refugee camps in southern Bangladesh after having fled ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and other violence and repression in Rakhine state, Myanmar, which is ruled by a military dictatorship. Since 2020, thousands of Rohingya have fled the camps by sea.
Hundreds have died during the perilous journey. If the sinking of the boat with 180 aboard is confirmed, it would make 2022 the deadliest year for Rohingya at sea, according to UNHCR.
UNHCR's Baloch stressed that "countries and states in the region have international obligations to help desperate people."
"We have been calling on states to go after people smugglers and human traffickers as they are responsible for putting people on those death-trap boats, but victims have to be saved and saving human life is the most important act," he told the Morning Herald.
"The refugee issue and saving lives cannot just be left to one country, it has to be done collectively, together in the region," he added.
Tun Khin, a Rohingya activist and refugee who now heads the Burmese Rohingya Organization U.K., took aim at regional power Australia, which has been criticized for decades over its abuse of desperate seaborne asylum-seekers, nearly all of whom are sent to dirty, crowded offshore processing centers on Manus Island and Nauru to await their fate.
"Australia has too often set a shameful example for the region through its treatment of refugees," he told the Morning Herald.
"These people are facing genocide in Burma," Khin added, using the former official name of Myanmar. "It is a hopeless situation for them in Bangladesh, there is no dignity of life there."