Kids on their own among migrants who arrived in Indonesia

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170 Migrant Children Arrive in Indonesia Alone


KUALA CANGKOI, Indonesia (AP) -- It was just the two of them, brother and sister, out on the open ocean with hundreds of other desperate migrants, mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing their homes in Myanmar. For nearly three months, the siblings comforted each other when rolling waves thrashed their boat, when their empty bellies ached and when they were beaten for trying to stand up to stretch their legs.

As the oldest, Mohammad Aesop - just 10 years old - knew it was his job to keep his 8-year-old sister safe. But with the Thai crew wielding guns and threatening to throw troublemakers overboard, he felt helpless.

Theirs was the first boat to wash ashore in Indonesia two weeks ago, followed by a number of other wooden trawlers crammed with hungry, dehydrated people. Many were abandoned at sea by their captains following a regional crackdown on human trafficking networks.

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Kids on their own among migrants who arrived in Indonesia
In this picture taken on May 21, 2015, ethnic Rohingya Muslim men from Myanmar sit in lines at a newly set up confinement area situated amid a palm oil plantation at Bayeun, after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the coast of Aceh province on May 20. Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions on May 21 for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea, as Myanmar hosted talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores. AFP PHOTO / Sutanta ADITYA (Photo credit should read SUTANTA ADITYA/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Rohingya migrants help each other to have haircut at their temporary shelter in Bayeun, Aceh province, Indonesia, Thursday, May 21, 2015. In the past three weeks, thousands of people — Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty — have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. After initially pushing many boats back, Malaysia and Indonesia announced on Wednesday that they will offer temporary shelter to all incoming migrants. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Rohingya youths from Myanmar wash themselves at the newly set up confinement area for migrants at Bayeun, Aceh province on May 22, 2015 after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the waters of the province on May 20. The widespread persecution of the impoverished community in Myanmar's Rakhine state is one of the primary causes for the current regional exodus, alongside growing numbers trying to escape poverty in neighbouring Bangladesh. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants sit on their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. In a potential breakthrough in Southeast Asia's humanitarian crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia offered Wednesday to provide temporary shelter to thousands of migrants stranded at sea after weeks of saying they weren't welcome. But they appealed for international help, saying the crisis was a global, not a regional, problem. (AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)
Migrants wait to be be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on their boat on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. In a potential breakthrough in Southeast Asia's humanitarian crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia offered Wednesday to provide temporary shelter to thousands of migrants stranded at sea after weeks of saying they weren't welcome. But they appealed for international help, saying the crisis was a global, not a regional, problem. (AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)
A man (C) looks at an abandoned boat that carried Rohingya migrants who were rescued earlier in the day, off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in Indonesia's East Aceh district of Aceh province on May 20, 2015. Hundreds of starving boatpeople were rescued off Indonesia on May 20 as Myanmar for the first time offered to help ease a regional migrant crisis blamed in part on its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LANGSA, INDONESIA - MAY 19: Rohingya migrants breakfast inside a temporary shelter on May 19, 2015 in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees arrived in Indonesia on May 15, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
KUTA BINJE, INDONESIA - MAY 20: Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants take a bath after arriving at the port in Julok village on May 20, 2015 in Kuta Binje, Aceh Province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
KUTA BINJE, INDONESIA - MAY 20: Rohingya migrants eat after arriving at the port in Julok village on May 20, 2015 in Kuta Binje, Aceh Province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after they jumped from a boat (R) drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants jump to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants bring back food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after jumping to collect them at sea from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrant women cry as they sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
A Rohingya migrant eats food dropped by a Thai army helicopter after he jumped to collect the supplies at sea from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants pour water on the head of a man who had fainted at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants receive medical treatments at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants receive medical treatments at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Bangladeshi migrants walk toward a temporary shelter upon arrival at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A group of rescued migrant children, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants tend to a fainted friend at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Newly arrived Rohingya migrants sit inside a temporary shelter at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, rest on their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a co-ordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A young boy and his mother rest in a shelter after their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a co-ordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, receive medical treatment upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bangladeshi migrants sit inside a temporary shelter upon arrival at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants receive medical treatments at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A sick migrant is helped by friends to board a truck that is taking them to a local hospital upon arrival in Simpang Tiga, Aceh province, Indonesia Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Hundreds of migrants stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia, officials said Wednesday, the latest in a stream of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to reach shore in a growing crisis confronting Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A rescued migrant weeps upon arrival Simpang Tiga, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Hundreds of migrants stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia, officials said Wednesday, the latest in a stream of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to reach shore in a growing crisis confronting Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
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So far, nearly 3,100 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have landed in three Southeast Asian countries, according to the International Organization for Migration. More than half of them wound up in Indonesia, where nearly 170 children who traveled alone - some after being tricked or kidnapped - wait to learn what will happen next.

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Labeled one of the world's most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have been fleeing predominantly Buddhist Myanmar for decades.

But it was only after the country started moving from dictatorship to democracy in 2011 that the numbers really spiraled, with newfound freedoms of expression lifting the lid off deep-rooted hatred felt by many toward the ethnic Muslims. Hundreds were killed, and thousands more were placed in internment camps where they cannot work and medical care is scarce.

In recent months, however, flight from the area has been triggered less by fear than by desperation and greed.

Rohingya brokers, eager to fill boats with human cargo that fetch $100 each, roam villages and displacement camps touting stories of jobs waiting overseas.

Bored, frustrated and naive, youngsters are the easiest to trick. Once on board the ships, they are also the most vulnerable.

At the Indonesian seaside camp in Aceh province's Kuala Cangkoi where Mohammad and his sister now stay, nearly a third of the migrants are children. Some of the smallest Rohingya suck on lollipops and munch on potato chips passed out by local residents and students who come to snap photos of the group. Other exhausted little ones, who went three days without food on the boat, lie face down asleep on the cool white tile of a pavilion where fish is normally hawked.

"The vulnerability of these children can never be overstated," said Steve Hamilton, deputy chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Indonesia, adding that the government has said special care will be provided to ensure the safety of unaccompanied minors. "The hardships they have endured at such young ages are heartbreaking."

Mohammad and his sister, Untas Begum, lost their mother three years ago, when sectarian violence in Myanmar's troubled state of Rakhine reached its peak. She was killed by a machete during an attack at a market in the state capital, Sittwe. Her children were taken in by a relative, who struggled to care for them with little money for food.

Their father has been living in Muslim-majority Malaysia, one of the few places where Rohingya can find menial jobs and a semblance of acceptance. He decided it was time for his children to join him, and paid a broker in March to put them on a boat in the Bay of Bengal.

The siblings were forced to sit with their knees bent so that another person could be seated in between their legs - like human dominos stacked together as closely as possible to ensure the biggest payoff from ransoms of around $2,000 per person demanded from the migrants' families after they left Myanmar's territorial waters.

To sleep, they simply leaned back into the chest of the person behind them. When their legs shook and ached from being locked in one position for so long, they were beaten for moving or trying to stand.

The heat on the boat was oppressive, and the stench of sweat and soured vomit was nauseating. They were given only a few spoonfuls of rice gruel twice a day. Fever, diarrhea and dehydration were common among the children and adults, but no medicine was provided. Untas said she once shivered while burning hot and freezing at the same time.

"We were given a little food and water, and we were on the sea for a long time," she said, sipping water casually though a straw, a precious commodity that such a short time ago was rationed to keep her alive during the journey. "We didn't have our mom or dad on the boat, so we were scared."

Fear and desperation have driven smugglers to flee their vessels following recent arrests and the discovery of dozens of mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia where migrants were held in the jungle before the floating camps were set up offshore. Mohammad said one night a smaller boat approached, and as the captain and crew left, they pointed guns at the people on the larger vessel and told them that anyone who tried to follow would be killed.

"He shot twice into the air. Everyone started screaming and crying," Mohammad said, adding that he threw his sister across his lap to try to shield her with his tiny body. "I thought they would kill all of us."

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The Associated Press spoke to numerous children in Myanmar who managed to escape their boats, along with those who made it to shore in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Some said they ended up at sea after brokers in Rakhine told them that if they left immediately without telling their parents, they could earn big money in Thailand and Malaysia and send it home to their impoverished families. People continued to be loaded even after the crisis began unfolding earlier this month, with abandoned boats being pushed back to sea like pinballs by the region's navies.

Others, like Atau Rahman, 12, of Sittwe, reported being outright kidnapped. He said he and nine other boys were grabbed by a "weird man" and shoved onto a boat where they simply disappeared. They were held for weeks offshore until the boat was finally crammed full of enough bodies to leave.

"I don't know what happened," he said at a camp in the Acehnese town of Langsa, where the most recent vessel landed last week. "We were put on the boat and tied up, and gags were put in our mouths so we couldn't talk."

In a tent just behind him, a little girl with diarrhea lay listless on a plastic tarp with an IV drip strapped to her arm. Skinny women sat nearby on the ground nursing fussy babies, while some children with every rib showing ran naked through the grounds. Indonesian medical workers scurried to conduct basic health screenings and provide vaccinations - likely the first medical care many Rohingya kids have ever received. Meanwhile, a 3-year-old girl died from tetanus after arriving at the local hospital last week, and a few other kids were receiving treatment there.

"This human tragedy was too cruel for the children to bear. I'm so sad to see their blank gaze when they describe their emotional wounds," said Rudi Purnomo, from the Indonesian nonprofit group Act for Humanity. "The condition of these children in the refugee shelters makes me hug my own kids tighter than usual and feel grateful."

Denied citizenship, the 1.3 million Rohingya living in Myanmar are effectively stateless, wanted not at home nor by any other country.

Governments fear that by letting in even a few poor, uneducated migrants, they will open the floodgates for many. In recent days, Indonesia and Malaysia relented, saying they would provide temporary shelter to 7,000 people - the number who have already landed combined with those believed still stranded at sea.

But they did so only on condition that the international community would resettle them in third countries within a year. So far, the U.S. and the tiny African nation of Gambia are the only countries to raise their hands.

Hussein Ahmed, a 12-year-old Rohingya boy, has stopped trying to imagine a future for himself. He left a camp in Sittwe by himself when a broker convinced his mother he could earn money abroad to support the family since his father was killed three years ago in the violence. After months at sea, he now feels his people may be the most unwanted on earth.

"I was born in Myanmar, but they don't want me. I tried to go to Thailand or Malaysia, but I can't go anywhere because they don't want me," he said at the Langsa camp. "I was a kid back home, but now I have to be a man. I am in a different country alone. It's up to God - whatever will happen next."

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Associated Press writers Esther Htusan in Langsa, Indonesia, and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
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