Indonesia to accept dozens of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea

Officials had previously said the refugees would be given food and water but could not land in Indonesia.

Indonesia has announced it will allow a boat packed with Rohingya refugees, which had become stranded off its coast, to dock after calls from aid organisations to allow the vessel to seek refuge.

Local officials in Aceh, a province on the western island of Sumatra, had said on Tuesday that they would provide the roughly 120 passengers on board with food, medicine and water, but would not allow them to seek refuge in the Southeast Asian country, despite international pleas to do so.

“Today, the Indonesian government decided, in the name of humanity, to give refuge to Rohingya refugees currently afloat on a boat near Biereun district, Aceh,” Armed Wijaya, an official at Indonesia’s chief security ministry, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The decision was made after considering the emergency conditions the refugees are experiencing onboard the boat,” he said. Its passengers were mostly women and children, he added.

Indonesian sailors bringing supplies to a navy ship destined for Rohingya refugees after their boat was intercepted in the waters off Bireuen, Aceh province [Indonesian Navy/AFP]

The stranded boat had been at risk of sinking within days, two fishermen told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

“There were two places where the boat was leaking. There was [a] lot of water,” said Aditya Setiawan, one of the fishermen. In a video seen by Reuters, dozens of people appeared to be packed above and below the deck of the long, wooden skiff.

Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington, reporting from the Indonesian capital Jakarta, said the decision to allow the refugees to land was “not entirely surprising”.

“In the past, Indonesia has accepted refugees that have arrived by water near Aceh. But it is worth noting that Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and it is not seen as a destination for permanent resettlement,” Washington said.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group, more than 700,000 of whom fled persecution and violence in neighbouring Myanmar in August 2017.

Last year, hundreds of Rohingya who fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar arrived in Indonesia.

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 calm. Many have been turned away.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Jakarta, Ann Maymann, told Al Jazeera that Indonesia’s decision to allow the refugees to disembark from the stricken boat was a victory for human rights and international law.

“We are extremely grateful to the Indonesian government … it is a decision that we have not seen other governments take with regard to other boats,” she said.

“It is an example for other countries to follow, both in the Asia Pacific region and also in other parts of the world where boats are being pushed back.”