Dozens of Rohingya refugees who were intercepted after their boat ran into trouble off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province were being sent into Malaysian waters, authorities said.
At least 100 people, mostly women and children, on board a wooden vessel said to be taking on water were denied refuge in Indonesia and instead pushed into the neighbouring Southeast Asian country.
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Despite calls from non-governmental organisations and the United Nations agency for the refugees to be accepted, Indonesian authorities are attempting to send the group back after providing supplies, clothes and fuel, as well as a technician to fix their damaged boat.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, navy official Dian Suryansyah said Rohingya were not Indonesian citizens and the army could not “simply bring them in as refugees”.
“This is in line with government policy,” he added.
The wooden boat was first sighted two days ago, stranded about 70 nautical miles (130km) off the Indonesian coast, according to a local navy commander.
The Rohingya face widespread discrimination in Myanmar.
A military-backed campaign that the United Nations said amounted to genocide saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya driven across the border into Bangladesh in 2017, where they have been living in sprawling refugee camps ever since.
Indonesian authorities have not pushed back Rohingya refugees as strongly as Malaysia or Thailand, instead reluctantly accepting them upon arrival by sea.
Amnesty International and the UNHCR have called on the government to let the stranded group of Rohingya refugees land.
Executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, Usman Hamid, told Al Jazeera that Indonesia was violating its international obligation in turning back refugees.
“[Indonesia’s] decision to send a stricken boat back to Malaysia is unconscionable … international law clearly imposes obligations on states including Indonesia to protect human rights of refugees arriving on their shores,” he said from Jakarta.
Hamid said officials at Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had expressed reluctance to help the stranded Rohingya due to the coronavirus pandemic, reasoning Hamid said was wrong.
“I think Indonesia can still apply strict rules of health protocol in order to prevent the disease or the spread of the disease without pushing them back to the high seas,” he added.
The UNHCR also called on Jakarta to let the boat’s passengers disembark, pointing to the unseaworthiness of the boat.
Badruddin Yunus, a leader of the local fishing community, told the AFP news agency that fishermen who had visited the boat reported there were 120 people on board, including 51 children and 60 women.
He said the engine was broken and the refugees could not communicate with the local fishermen due to the language barrier.
Last year, hundreds of Rohingya who fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar arrived in Indonesia.
Many have since escaped to Malaysia, drawn by its substantial population of more than 100,000 Rohingya.