Nearly 100 Rohingya people who were stranded off the coast of Indonesia were pulled to shore on Thursday by local people furious at local authorities’ refusal to give them shelter because of fears about the coronavirus.
Some 94 people from the persecuted Myanmar minority – including 30 children – were plucked from their boat by fishermen this week before being intercepted by maritime officials from Sumatra island who pulled them closer to shore.
But officials in Lhokseumawe in the Indonesian province of Aceh refused to allow the group to land, citing coronavirus concerns.
Angry locals took matters into their own hands on Thursday by taking to their own boats to pull the group to shore.
Residents who had gathered on a local beach cheered the move, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.
“It’s purely for humanitarian reasons,” said fisherman Aples Kuari.
“We were sad seeing kids and pregnant women stranded at sea,” he added.
Earlier on Thursday, local police chief Eko Hartanto said they wanted to send the mainly Muslim Rohingya back to sea rather than give them temporary shelter.
Fishermen in Acheh become “fisher of men” by rescuing refugees. Terima kasih! Now to move to durable solutions for refugees everywhere. https://t.co/LlHKjJQ6fE
— Dr Khor SK (@DrKhorSK) June 26, 2020
But authorities appeared to soften that stance in the face of local protests, and the group has now been given temporary shelter in private residences.
The Rohingya would be checked by medical staff to ensure they were virus-free, according to Aceh’s rescue agency. Aceh is on the northern tip of Sumatra.
Amnesty International praised the spirit of the rescue.
The “disembarkation of Rohingya refugees is a moment of optimism and solidarity,” the organisation’s Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid 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.”
About one million Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, after fleeing their homes in Myanmar in 2017 to escape a brutal military crackdown that is now the subject of an international genocide investigation.
The continuing conflict in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still live, was expected to be under discussion at Friday’s virtual summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Human Rights Watch said on Friday that ASEAN should urgently adopt concrete plans to address the crisis.
“ASEAN leaders, having done almost nothing for years, should dramatically rethink their approach to the Rohingya crisis,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director said in a statement. “A coordinated regional response is desperately needed to protect Rohingya in Myanmar, in refugee camps abroad and at sea, while pressing Myanmar to take the steps necessary for them to return home safely.”
Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia are the Rohingya’s favoured destinations, with thousands paying people smugglers for the dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean every year.
Malaysia has the second largest community of Rohingya refugees after Bangladesh, and Muslim-majority Indonesia has previously allowed them to land and allowed many to stay.
But the Rohingya’s plight has been compounded in recent months as officials have turned them away over concern about the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, a coastguard official in Malaysia said Rohingya detained after their boat was found off the resort island of Langkawi earlier this month had told them dozens had died during their four months at sea.
The 269 people who survived are now being held by the authorities. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and treats asylum seekers and refugees as “illegal” migrants.
“Some of them died at sea. They were thrown overboard,” Mohd Zubil Mat Som told reporters, without specifying the exact number.
Zubil said the group had been on a larger ship carrying more than 800 people before they were transferred to the second vessel.
Authorities have not found the original boat, thought to be now carrying around 500 people.
It is not clear whether the group that landed off Indonesia’s coast belonged to that larger group.
Malaysia has stepped up border enforcement patrols as part of its attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. It has pushed back 22 boats since May 1, HRW said, describing the situation as an echo of the 2015 crisis when thousands of Rohingya were left stranded at sea.