Medan, Indonesia A staging effort involving a boat transporting Rohingya refugees and the Indonesian navy ended with a dramatic rescue that took 18 hours to complete due to heavy rain and open sea.
The refugees – mostly women and children – were brought ashore in the early hours of Friday morning at Lhokseumawe in Indonesia’s northwestern province of Aceh. They were immediately selected by health department officials as part of the country’s protocol against COVID-19.
“We are very relieved and extremely grateful to the Indonesian government for granting Rohingya permission to disembark on humanitarian grounds in Aceh,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder of Geutanyoe Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) representing refugees. supported in Indonesia. and Malaysia.
“Indonesia has once again shown great humanity towards the refugees and this principled response should not only be praised but adequately supported,” she told Al Jazeera.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also said he welcomed the Indonesian government’s decision.
“We are grateful that Indonesia and its people have once again proved their humanitarian spirit and shown that saving lives should always be the top priority. “It is a humanitarian necessity to facilitate the immediate exit of vessels in distress and to prevent loss of life,” said Ann Maymann, UNHCR Representative in Indonesia.
The rescue ends days of talks after the wrecked wooden vessel, which was carrying more than 100 Rohingya refugees, was first spotted on Sunday by fishermen floating in waters off the coast of Aceh.
On Tuesday, Indonesian authorities initially reject the refugee boat, which had a broken engine and was taking on water. Photos circulating on social media showed the Indonesian navy preparing food, water and petrol for the refugees ahead of an apparent plan to push them back into Malaysian waters.
It sparked a cry with NGOs, including Amnesty International and UNHCR, calling for the refugees to be allowed to land, Indonesian authorities urged to submit.
“Today, the Indonesian government has decided, in the name of humanity, to take refuge in Rohingya refugees currently floating on a boat near the Biereun district, Aceh,” said Armed Wijaya, an official at Indonesia’s main security ministry. , Said in a statement Wednesday.
High tide, stormy sea
On Thursday, an Indonesian naval vessel towed the refugee boat to the port of Lhokseumawe, where the refugees were able to disembark. The process was originally intended to take about 12 hours, but high tide and stormy seas with large waves progressed slowly.
“There were 105 refugees on board and several of them will need medical attention in the coming days,” Nasruddin M Is, the humanitarian coordinator of the Geutanyoe Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
Nasruddin waited at the docks to help process the refugees.
He said the refugees would now be quarantined for 10 days in accordance with local coronavirus protocols. He added that there are also plans to vaccinate the refugees as part of an initiative by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Fan, the co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, told Al Jazeera that pushing the refugees back to sea would have been a violation of the international principle of non-refutation.
Non-refoulement is a principle of international law which prohibits a country from returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they would run the risk of persecution.
‘No security or freedom in Myanmar’
Gura Amin, a Rohingya refugee based in Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, arrived in Aceh by boat from Bangladesh in 2019. He told Al Jazeera he was extremely concerned about the escalating situation.
“When I was on my boat, it was so difficult. The Myanmar government and army have been killing Rohingya for years, including women and children. There is no security or freedom in Myanmar. “
When Gura Amin from Cox’s Bazar arrived in Bangladesh in Aceh, he was at sea for seven months, after being repeatedly turned away from landing in Malaysia.
Supplies of food and water on his boat were severely depleted, leading to the deaths of a number of the refugees on board, including children.
Amin could only enter Indonesia as his boat was not noticed by authorities before it landed and the refugees on board had already disembarked at a local beach.
“They will have tried their best to enter Malaysia,” he said of the refugees on the latest boat.
In the past, neighboring Thailand and Malaysia did not allow Rohingya refugees to land and pushed them back to the sea. Indonesia has also repeatedly tried to deny refugees the right to land before conceding, something Fan said was also a violation of Indonesian law.
“This is contrary to Indonesian Presidential Decision 125 of 2016,” she said.
“Indonesia has a legal framework for landing refugees and emergency response. It is far from perfect, but it is a very important humanitarian law and it must be respected. “
Article 9 of Indonesian Presidential Decree 125/2016 provides that refugees found in an emergency at sea must be given first aid and allowed to land on Indonesian soil if they are in danger.
The Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world and have faced mass killings in Myanmar for decades, causing thousands to flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh or other countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the subsequent 1967 Refugee Protocol, which means that refugees are not allowed to reside permanently in the country.
“The authorities are always trying to push back refugees, unless there is pressure from NGOs, locals or the media,” said Nasier Husein, a documentary filmmaker based in Lhokseumawe in Aceh.
Previously, refugees could land in Aceh after intervention by residents, including fishermen – something that happened again this time.
After the latest discovery of the boat in waters off the coast of Bireuen, fishermen demonstrated on the beach and tried to reason with the local authorities to allow the refugees ashore.
“Following the arrival of three boats in 2020 and 2021, local refugee task force structures have been established in Aceh, and a temporary reception area / site remains ready to receive arrivals through the work of IOM and partners,” said Louis Hoffmann, IOM’s head. of Mission in Indonesia said in a statement.
Along with the UNHCR registration process, IOM and partners also provide refugees with shelter, bedding, food and psychosocial support, Hoffmann said.
The youngest refugees, who have been at sea for more than a month, will be temporarily housed in Aceh before being brought to the provincial capital, Medan, where other Rohingya refugees are based, including Gura Amin.
“I am grateful to the Indonesian government. [for allowing them to land], “he said.
“It would have saved their lives.”