BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian authorities decided Wednesday to allow a boat carrying 120 Rohingya Muslims to land after drifting for days off the country’s northernmost province of Aceh.
The decision was made because of the severe conditions experienced by the passengers, who are overwhelmingly women and children, said Armed Wijaya, who heads a refugee task force at the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Law and Security.
“The Indonesian government has decided, in the name of humanity, to accommodate the Rohingya refugees currently adrift at sea near Bireuen district,” Wijaya said in a statement.
Local authorities had earlier said they would push the boat back to international waters despite calls from the United Nations refugee agency and human rights groups that it be allowed to land.
The vessel is reportedly leaking and has a damaged engine, and is floating in the open sea in harsh weather and may be at risk of capsizing, the UNHCR said Tuesday.
The boat was first sighted by local fishermen on Sunday about 60 miles (96 kilometers) off the coast of Bireuen, said Badruddin Yunus, the leader of the local tribal fishing community. He said fishermen were unable to tow the broken-down wooden boat but provided food, water and clothes to the passengers, including 60 women, 51 children and nine men.
“Their condition looks weak but fine,” said Yunus, adding that the Rohingya said they wanted to go to Malaysia and had been at sea for 28 days before their boat’s engine broke down.
Local officials, supported by police and the navy, provided food, medicine, a new engine and a technician to help repair the boat, and earlier said they would push it back to international waters once it is fixed, said Bireuen district chief Muzakkar Gani, who also cited concerns that some of the people might have COVID-19.
The plan to push the boat back out to sea drew an outcry from human rights groups.
“The Rohingya ethnic group is a vulnerable, stateless group of people that should be given protection,” the Civil Society Coalition, a coalition of nine Indonesian rights groups, said in a statement. “As a country that upholds human rights and a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Indonesia should set an example for other countries.”
The UNHCR said it is ready to assist the government and local community in preparing for the Rohingya, including a quarantine process in line with international public health protocols.
More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.
Groups of Rohingya have attempted to leave the crowded camps in Bangladesh and travel by sea in hazardous voyages to other Muslim-majority countries in the region.
Muslim-dominated Malaysia has been a common destination for the boats, and traffickers have promised the refugees a better life there. But many Rohingya refugees who land in Malaysia face detention.
Although Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, the UNHCR said that a 2016 presidential regulation provides a national legal framework governing the treatment of refugees on boats in distress near Indonesia and to help them disembark.
These provisions have been implemented for years, most recently in June when 81 Rohingya refugees were rescued off the coast of East Aceh.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
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