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Indonesia’s navy has rescued more than 100 Rohingya asylum seekers who had been adrift on a sinking boat off the country’s western coast, bringing them to safety following pressure from locals and international rights groups.
- Indonesian authorities initially planned to push the asylum seekers back to sea but relented to calls to provide refuge
- The group will be made to quarantine for 10 days after 28 days at sea
- Some 14,000 refugees are currently in Indonesia, many of whom hope to be resettled in Australia
Rough seas and pouring rain hampered the operation to bring the mostly women and children to shore, 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 packed into a wooden skiff, 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 kept in quarantine 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, the local mayor, Suaidi Yahya, said.
The group of Rohingya — which included some pregnant women — had been seen by fisherman 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 vessel away, but changed that decision after warnings about the condition of the vessel and calls from UNHCR and groups such as Amnesty International to let the boat land.
A fisherman who had approached the boat when it was at sea said the vessel had sustained engine damages and was leaking, and was at risk of sinking.
He also said some refugees had indicated that they needed food.
Video they sent from the scene showed the vessel dangerously overcrowded and sitting low in the water after it took on water in heavy seas after the engine failure.
When video and images circulated on social media, support was stoked for the Muslim-minority Rohingya who are fleeing persecution in their native Myanmar, 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 residents in recent years.
More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group.
Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.
“We are grateful that Indonesia and its people have once again proven their humanitarian spirit and shown that saving lives must always be the top priority,” UNHCR head in Indonesia, Ann Maymann, said in a statement.
“It is a humanitarian imperative to facilitate the immediate disembarkation of vessels in distress and to prevent the loss of life.”
‘Everybody was eager to help’
Local Acehnese said they were motivated by memories of foreign assistance during more than 30 years of conflict and the devastating tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in 2004.Indonesian fishermen praised for rescuing Rohingya asylum seekers whose ‘final destination is Australia’Almost 100 Rohingya people were pulled ashore by locals from fishing villages on the northern tip of Sumatra this week. Read more
“We sincerely want to help, especially because we know how it felt getting help from other countries during the tsunami,” said Ridwan, 56, a local fisherman who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name.
“Everybody was eager to help since the beginning,” he said.
A local fisherman earlier told AFP that refugees told him one 17-year-old boy had died.
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 for Amnesty International’s Indonesia chapter — said the government had reacted late but he appreciated that authorities had listened to Acehnese fishermen and accepted the refugees.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and sees itself as a transit country for those seeking asylum in third countries.
Roughly 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, when the seas are usually calm.
Hundreds of Rohingya have arrived on the Acehnese coastline in recent years. Many have been turned away, at times after spending months at sea.
Of course they should. …