Locals in Indonesia’s Aceh province helped nearly 100 Rohingya who were stranded off its coast come ashore Thursday, despite resistance to let them in by officials who said the refugees would be sent back out to sea after boat repairs.
Fishermen and others from a community in North Aceh district assisted 94 Rohingya women, men and children in wading to shore at Lancok Beach after the refugees got down from a fishing boat.
Muhammad Hasan, a leader in the coastal community, said locals insisted on helping the Rohingya disembark for humanitarian reasons because they were weak and hungry.
“It was raining and people felt sorry for them, being out there in the cold in the middle of the sea,” Hasan told BenarNews.
Hasan said the Rohingya were given food and clothes, while one of them was taken to a health clinic because he looked ill.
A group of local fishermen had rescued the Rohingya after boarding their broken down wooden boat earlier on Monday. But their own boat ran into mechanical problems a few miles off the northwestern tip of Sumatra Island while they were ferrying the members of Myanmar’s stateless Muslim minority to safety on land, delaying the arrival on Thursday.
The Rohingya group – consisting of 49 women, 30 children and 15 men – were taken to a fish market in North Aceh, where they were to be given temporary shelter, locals said. Late in the day, however, police and military personnel moved them from the market to an empty building at an old immigration office in Lhokseumawe, a town in another part of the district, officials said.
Risawan Bentara, a secretary in the North Aceh administration, said local officials held a meeting during which they agreed that the Rohingya should be given provisions and sent back to international waters after their boat was repaired. He cited concerns that some of them might have COVID-19.
“While we will give them assistance in both food and medicine, we will also examine their health [to see] whether they are infected with the coronavirus or not,” he told BenarNews.
Risawan said local officials were still waiting for directives from the central government in Jakarta but, in the meantime, would fix and prepare the boat so the refugees could sail off again.
Col. Sumirating Baskoro, the local military commander, said the people on the boat would be escorted back to sea.
“We will repair the boat and give them fuel, and the plan is the boat will be pushed back to sea under the supervision of the Air Force and the Navy to get out of Indonesian waters,” he told reporters.
Locals offer Rohingya food, shelter
Hasan, the community leader, urged the government to allow the Rohingya to stay and said that locals would provide them with food and shelter.
“Residents are all hoping they will not be released into the sea so soon. Just accommodate them here first,” he said.
Although some residents are worried that the refugees may carry the coronavirus, they should not be left to continue on their sea journey in such conditions, he said.
“We, the fishing community, are willing to help them for a while, but we are waiting for the government to make a decision,” Hasan said.
In Jakarta, the Foreign Ministry said it was discussing with other relevant authorities about how to handle the situation with the Rohingya boat people.
“We are still collecting information and we are coordinating with the local government,” ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told BenarNews.
‘The best of humanity’
Meanwhile, the local office of global rights watchdog Amnesty International praised the Acehnese people for helping the Rohingya come to shore while other countries in Southeast Asia had been turning away boats carrying Rohingya. Boats with Rohingya aboard have sailed from Myanmar or southeastern Bangladesh, where more than 1 million refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state are sheltering in camps.
As of Thursday, officials in Aceh said they still were trying to determine where the Rohingya boat had originally sailed from.
“Today’s disembarkation of Rohingya refugees is a moment of optimism and solidarity,” Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said in a statement.
“It’s a credit to the community in Aceh who pushed hard and took risks so that these children, women and men could be brought to shore. They have shown the best of humanity,” he said, invoking similar scenes in 2015 when thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants arrived in Aceh aboard smugglers’ boats after neighboring countries had prevented them from landing.
Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention but is obligated under international human rights law not to turn back people seeking asylum, Amnesty said.
Aceh, located at the far western end of the Indonesian archipelago, is a religiously conservative and semi-autonomous province that, until 2005, was in the grip of a decades-long separatist insurgency. In 2015, local fishermen also played a crucial role in helping to rescue and bring ashore hundreds of stranded Rohingya and Bangladeshis, who had been abandoned by human traffickers at sea.
In neighboring Malaysia on Thursday, the country’s foreign minister was asked about what the government intended to do with 269 Rohingya whose disabled boat was towed into Langkawi Island earlier this month, including whether the authorities would send them back out to sea once their boat’s engine was repaired.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said the Rohingya question needed to be discussed and resolved at the regional level, including in talks with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose leaders were to meet for an online summit on Friday.
“[I]t is important that we understand this issue is not an easy issue to resolve – more so as we are facing COVID-19,” Hishamuddin told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya. “Most importantly we need to discuss it rationally without being emotional, and Wisma Putra [the foreign office] has always looked at this [through] diplomatic channels as well as our relations within ASEAN. Not only to look at the source country [that is] Rakhine state but also where the refugees are coming from, Bangladesh.”
A day earlier, the head of Malaysia’s coast guard told reporters that an unknown number of people on the Langkawi boat had died at sea and their bodies were thrown overboard.
Malaysian officials have said the boat that landed in Langkawi had sailed from southeastern Bangladesh, but the Bangladeshi foreign minister later pushed back by saying that his country would refuse to allow the Rohingya on the boat to return to Cox’s Bazar district.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.