Medan, Indonesia – A standoff involving a boat carrying Rohingya refugees and the Indonesian Navy ended in a dramatic rescue that lasted 18 hours due to heavy rains and high seas.
The refugees – mostly women and children – were disembarked in Lhokseumawe, in Aceh province, northwest Indonesia, in the early hours of Friday. They were immediately reviewed by health department officials as part of the country’s COVID-19 protocol.
“We are very relieved and extremely grateful to the Indonesian government for granting the Rohingya permission to disembark in Aceh for humanitarian reasons,” Lilianne Fan, co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports refugees in Indonesia. and Malaysia.
“Indonesia has once again shown great humanity towards the refugees and this principled response should not only be commended but adequately supported,” she told Al Jazeera.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also said it applauds the Indonesian government’s decision.
âWe are grateful to Indonesia and its people for once again proving their humanitarian spirit and showing that saving lives must always be the top priority. It is a humanitarian imperative to facilitate the immediate disembarkation of ships in distress and to avoid loss of human life, âsaid Ann Maymann, UNHCR representative in Indonesia.
The rescue ends days of talks after the stricken wooden ship, carrying more than 100 Rohingya refugees, was first spotted on Sunday by fishermen floating in the waters off the Aceh coast.
On Tuesday, Indonesian authorities initially rejected the refugee boat, which had a broken engine and was taking on water. Photographs circulating on social media showed the Indonesian Navy preparing food, water and gasoline for the refugees before an apparent plan to push them back into Malaysian waters.
This sparked an uproar among NGOs, including Amnesty International and UNHCR, calling for the refugees to be allowed to disembark, prompting the Indonesian authorities to give in.
“Today the Indonesian government has decided, on behalf of humanity, to give refuge to Rohingya refugees currently afloat on a boat near Biereun district, Aceh,” Armed Wijaya, an Indonesian ministry official said on Wednesday. of security.
High tides, rough seas
On Thursday, an Indonesian Navy ship towed the refugee boat to the port of Lhokseumawe, where the refugees were able to disembark. The process was originally scheduled to take around 12 hours, but high tides and rough seas with big waves slowed the progress.
“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 was waiting at the docks to help deal with the refugees.
He said refugees would now be quarantined for 10 days in accordance with local coronavirus protocols. He added that there were also plans to vaccinate the refugees as part of an initiative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Fan, co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, told Al Jazeera that pushing refugees back to sea would have been a violation of the international principle of non-refoulement.
Non-refoulement is a principle of international law that prohibits a country from returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they would be in danger of persecution.
“No security or freedom in Myanmar”
Gura Amin, a Rohingya refugee based in Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, had arrived in Aceh by boat from Bangladesh in 2019. He told Al Jazeera he was extremely concerned about the escalating situation.
âWhen I was on my boat it was so difficult. The Myanmar government and military have been killing Rohingya for years, including women and children. There is no security or freedom in Myanmar.
When Gura Amin arrived in Aceh from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, he had been at sea for seven months, having been repeatedly refused to disembark in Malaysia.
The food and water supplies on his boat had been severely depleted, leading to the deaths of a number of refugees on board, including children.
Amin was only able to enter Indonesia because his boat was only spotted by authorities after it landed and the refugees on board had already disembarked at a local beach.
âThey will have done their best to get into Malaysia,â he said of the refugees on the last boat.
In the past, neighboring Thailand and Malaysia have not allowed Rohingya refugees to disembark and have driven them back to the sea. Indonesia has also made several attempts to deny refugees the right to land before giving in, which, according to Fan, was also a violation of Indonesian law.
âThis goes against Indonesian Presidential Decree 125 of 2016,â she said.
âIndonesia has a legal framework for disembarking refugees and responding to emergencies. It is far from perfect, but it is a very important humanitarian right and it must be respected.
Article 9 of Indonesian Presidential Decree 125/2016 states that refugees who find themselves in an emergency situation at sea must receive emergency assistance and be allowed to disembark on Indonesian soil if they are in danger.
The Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world and have faced massacres in Myanmar for decades, causing thousands to flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh or other countries like Malaysia, the Thailand and Indonesia.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the ensuing 1967 Refugee Protocol, which means that refugees are not allowed to resettle permanently in the country.
“The authorities always try to push the refugees away, unless there is pressure from NGOs, locals or the media,” said Nasier Husein, a documentary filmmaker based in Lhokseumawe in Aceh.
Previously, refugees could disembark in Aceh following interventions by locals, including fishermen – which has happened again this time.
Following the boat’s latest discovery in the waters off Bireuen, fishermen demonstrated on the beach and tried to reason with local authorities to allow the refugees to disembark.
âFollowing past arrivals of three boats in 2020 and 2021, local refugee working group structures have been established in Aceh, and a temporary reception site / complex remains ready to receive arrivals thanks to the work of the IOM and its partners, âsaid Louis Hoffmann, head of IOM. of Mission in Indonesia said in a statement.
Along with UNHCR’s registration process, IOM and its partners are also providing refugees with shelter, bedding, food and psychosocial support, Hoffmann said.
The remaining refugees, who have been at sea for more than a month, will be temporarily housed in Aceh before being taken to the provincial capital, Medan, where other Rohingya refugees, including Gura Amin, are based.
âI am grateful to the Indonesian government [for allowing them to land],” he said.
âIt saved their lives.