International pressure causes Indonesia to allow more than 100 Rohingya refugees to land

Indonesia’s fleet has rescued more than 100 Rohingya asylum seekers who had been drifting on a sinking boat off the country’s west coast, bringing them to safety following pressure from locals and international rights groups.

Turbulent seas and pouring rain hampered the operation to bring most women and children ashore, the Navy said.

A video showed the group leaving the boat in a heavy downpour and boarding a bus while authorities sprayed them with disinfectant.

The refugees had been wrapped in a clog, which appeared to have a makeshift sail.

Oktina Hafanti – an official at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – told reporters that the 105 refugees, including 50 women and 47 children, would be quarantined for 10 to 14 days and would undergo health checks.

They would later be sent to shelters in the Indonesian cities of Medan and Surabaya, said local mayor Suaidi Yahya.

The group of Rohingya – which included some pregnant women – had been spotted by fishermen off the coast of Aceh province after spending 28 days at sea.

Authorities had initially agreed to provide humanitarian aid before planning to turn the ship away, but changed that decision following warnings about the ship’s condition and calls from the UNHCR and groups such as Amnesty International to allow the boat to land.

Rohingya mother and children get off boat
After leaving the tables, the asylum seekers were sprayed with disinfectant.(AFP: Azwar Ipank)

A fisherman who had approached the boat when it was at sea said the vessel had suffered engine damage and was leaking and was in danger of sinking.

He also said that some refugees had indicated that they needed food.

Video they sent from the scene showed the vessel dangerously crowded and sitting low in the water after taking water in heavy seas after the engine failure.

As videos and photos circulated on social media, the Muslim minority Rohingya fleeing persecution in their home country of Myanmar were backed up, according to local residents.

Myanmar’s military – which seized power from the country’s democratically elected government in February – has intensified its persecution of Rohingya in recent years.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar by Buddhist majority to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when Myanmar’s military launched a clearing operation in response to attacks by a rebel group.

Myanmar’s security forces have been charged with mass rape, killing and burning of thousands of homes.

“We are grateful that Indonesia and its people have once again demonstrated their humanitarian spirit and shown that saving lives must always be a top priority,” said UNHCR Chief of Staff Ann Maymann in a statement.

“It is a humanitarian necessity to facilitate the immediate landing of vessels in distress and to prevent loss of life.”

Fishermen approach a wooden vessel with Rohingya refugees on board
Acehnian fishermen have routinely rescued Rohingya stranded at sea.(Reuters: Aditya Setiawan)

‘Everyone was eager to help’

Local acehners said they were motivated by memories of foreign aid during more than 30 years of conflict and the devastating tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in 2004.

“We sincerely want to help, especially because we know how it felt to get help from other countries during the tsunami,” said Ridwan, 56, a local fisherman who, like many Indonesians, only goes by one name.

“Everyone has been eager to help since the beginning,” he said.

A local fisherman previously told AFP that refugees told him a 17-year-old boy was dead.

Officials said the survivors would be moved to a nearby training facility where they would be tested for COVID-19, have medical checks and then quarantine for 10 days.

Usman Hamid – executive director of Amnesty International’s branch in Indonesia – said the government had reacted late, but he appreciated that the authorities had listened to Acne fishermen and accepted the refugees.

Indonesia has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and sees itself as a transit country for those seeking asylum in third countries.

Approximately 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees are currently in Indonesia, many of whom hope to be resettled in Australia.

Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar have for years sailed to countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia between November and April, where the sea is usually calm.

Hundreds of Rohingya have arrived on the coast of Acehne in recent years. Many have been rejected, at times after spending months at sea.

ABC / wires

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