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After weeks at sea, dehydrated Rohingya refugees reach Indonesia


A boat carrying more than 180 Rohingya refugees has arrived in Indonesia. It's the second boat with refugees to do so in recent days. These members of the stateless, persecuted Muslim minority have been drifting for weeks without food or water before reaching shore. They fled from Bangladesh, where about a million Rohingya live in refugee camps after escaping a deadly military-led campaign targeting them in Myanmar. Joining us now is Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the U.N. Refugee Agency. First off, can you tell us in what state these refugees arrive in, in Indonesia?

BABAR BALOCH: Thank you for having me. These are desperate people who arrived over the last two days in bad shape, actually - dehydrated, many of them being adrift for a month in those choppy waves without anything, without any help as well. So the first thing UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, my colleagues, local communities and authorities had to do was try to give them urgent attention. Many of them needed medical help. And a majority of these people that landed yesterday ashore in Indonesia are women and children.

MARTÍNEZ: Were they at least relieved to be away from Myanmar?

BALOCH: They're relieved to be on safe land. And remember, as we have been saying, they have been adrift for a month. And when we say adrift for a month, it means they have been on a rickety wooden boat, which is not fit for sea travel at all. There have been reports of engine breakdowns on this boat that we are talking. This was specifically 200 on one boat. Out of 200, 174 arrived yesterday, 26 lost their lives during this ordeal.

MARTÍNEZ: Government officials said today in Bangladesh they're trying to stop refugees from risking their lives. This group of refugees made it to shore, others did not. What is your latest estimate on how many Rohingya refugees have died trying to make the journey?

BALOCH: Indeed, there can be a collective effort to restore hope in refugees' lives. And when we talk about these movements, there are reports that these are happening from Bangladesh, from Myanmar. But there is a reason for this happening. These are people who have to find safety and protection. And there are no legal ways for them to do that. Many of them see no hope for themselves in the refugee camp where UNHCR, us, with the local Bangladeshi authorities and communities, have been working.

Let's not forget that Bangladesh has been a generous host for a million Rohingya refugees. But these Rohingya refugees need humanitarian support to continue their lives. As a refugee, when you don't see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel, you don't know what the future holds for you, it just aggravates that sense of desperation - and added to that complex and difficult situation are the human smugglers and traffickers, who are ready to prey on these desperate people. And this is what they do.

MARTÍNEZ: When you say there's no hope, or at least they have no hope in their situation, how bad is their situation in Bangladesh?

BALOCH: Inside the camps, where you have a million people being supported day and night by local authorities in Bangladesh, the humanitarians, UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency. But we are not getting internationally the required help we need to take care of these people. Remember, many of them are children. You have women there. So there's people's future at stake as well. A majority of them, more than 700,000, arrived in 2017 from Myanmar. Five years on, they don't know what's going to happen to them. So we have to collectively - and this is not only a call on the regional state, this is a global call to invest in these desperate refugees' lives so they see a future for themselves. We have been asking for resources.

MARTÍNEZ: But if they stay - I guess what I'm asking is if they stay, what do they face? What kinds of threats are they facing if they stay?

BALOCH: They are currently at a location which is very overcrowded. We have been continuously working to improve it. Remember, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries. Land is an issue. But even after that, they have been able to step forward and host these refugees. What is not there is equal responsibility sharing and support globally from the international community.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Babar Baloch, spokesman for the U.N. Refugee Agency. Thank you very much for your time.

BALOCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.