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Seven-month ordeal at sea takes toll on Rohingya refugees in Indonesia

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Seven-month ordeal at sea takes toll on Rohingya refugees in Indonesia

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
29 October 2020 Also available in:


UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is saddened by the deaths of three Rohingya refugees who disembarked in northern Aceh, Indonesia last week. Among the arrivals one young man and two young women, all under the age of 25, have now passed away.

We are also deeply concerned about the health of many others in the group of 293 people, more than a third of whom are identified as in need of hospitalization and medical care. The overwhelming majority of the group (four out of five) are women and children and approximately half are girls under the age of 18.

Many children in the group are without their parents, and others are not accompanied by any guardian. At least one boy, aged 12, was left without a caregiver during the journey when his father died.

More than 30 people are reported to have died during the journey at sea, which started in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and lasted for seven months. Those who survived are in a fragile physical condition and have suffered serious trauma.

All of the new arrivals have returned negative rapid tests for COVID-19, but they are suffering from a range of other medical conditions believed to be caused by exposure, malnutrition and all that they endured at sea.

Having been repeatedly turned away and refused disembarkation in the region, many are showing symptoms consistent with beriberi disease, a preventable condition caused by acute vitamin deficiency.

With limited space and resources available in local health facilities, we are working with local authorities in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, as well as the Indonesian Red Cross, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and other partners. Arrangements are currently being made to establish a medical clinic at the “BLK” site designated by Indonesian authorities for temporary shelter.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has deployed an emergency health team to conduct medical assessments and UNHCR has begun distributing B1 tablets for the treatment of the vitamin deficiency causing symptoms consistent with beriberi disease.

Pre-registration of the new arrivals has been delayed until later this week to allow time for medical provision.

UNHCR commends the Government of Indonesia and the local community in Aceh for receiving the group and mobilizing support to rapidly meet their immediate basic needs.

This tragic episode serves as a stark reminder to states in the region that prompt action to provide a safe port could have saved dozens of lives.




The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.