Fishermen and navy officials in Indonesia were towing a leaking boat holding more than 100 Rohingya refugees toward shore on Thursday, after the government reversed an earlier decision to turn the stranded vessel away.
The reversal was a rare instance of good news for a mostly stateless ethnic minority whose members have been fleeing persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh for years. Hundreds of other Rohingya have died trying to make similar journeys.
Fishermen spotted the vessel on Sunday off the coast of Aceh Province, the northwest tip of the island of Sumatra. Rights groups later said that 120 people were stranded on it, mostly women and children.
“Their engine exploded, the boat leaked, there were strong winds and big waves,” Badruddin Yunus, a local fisherman and community leader, said in an interview. “The other problem is that there are so many children on board.”
Officials in Aceh said on Tuesday that they would help repair the boat and provide food and medicine to its passengers, but that it would not be allowed ashore. “The Rohingya are not Indonesian citizens, we can’t just bring them in even as refugees,” Dian Suryansyah, a navy official, told the Reuters news agency. “This is in line with government policy.”
Human rights groups pushed back, urging the government to honor international refugee conventions and a domestic regulation that requires the government to save refugees whose vessels are in danger of sinking in Indonesian waters. The United Nations refugee agency said it had called on Indonesia to allow the vessel to dock immediately.
On Wednesday, officials from the central government said the boat would be allowed to dock after all. It was expected to dock Thursday night around midnight local time, after a navy vessel finished towing it to shore.
Armed Wijaya, the head of a government refugee task force, said by telephone on Thursday that the policy change had been made “in the name of humanity.”
“This decision was made after considering the emergency conditions experienced by refugees onboard,” he said, adding that they had been trying to reach Malaysia when their boat broke down.
But Reza Maulana of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an Indonesian charity, said he believed the government had relented only because of pressure from advocacy groups. “The government has known about this from the beginning, but they took no action,” he added.
Thousands of Rohingya have tried to make dangerous journeys across the Andaman Sea in recent years. The flow of people surged after 2017, when more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya fled an ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar.
These days many Rohingya set off from Bangladesh, where they often live in cramped, squalid camps that have been battered by landslides and fires, and where human trafficking and domestic abuse are rife.
Their destination is often Malaysia, where they can find work as undocumented laborers. Many of them travel there after arriving by sea in Indonesia.
But officials and navies from Southeast Asian governments have for years prevented some Rohingya refugee boats from coming ashore. More recently, they have cited Covid-related border restrictions.
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In several cases, boats carrying Rohingya have drifted on open seas after being turned away from land. Last year, Bangladeshi Coast Guard officers rescued one such boat and found hundreds of malnourished and dehydrated people who had been kept in the boat’s hold by human traffickers.
The U.N. refugee agency, U.N.H.C.R., recently cataloged six known deadly voyages involving Rohingya between January 2020 and July of this year that it said had resulted in a total of 220 estimated deaths. Three of those journeys ended in Indonesia, two in Bangladesh and one in Malaysia.
The agency said in the report that the prevalence of deaths on such journeys was rising because refugees were spending longer periods in limbo in open water. Their vessels tend to be poorly equipped, inadequately stocked with essential supplies and crewed by smugglers who abuse passengers, the agency said.
Fishermen in Aceh are among the few in Southeast Asia who have welcomed the Rohingya.
A battered trawler with around 100 refugees landed in the province last June, followed by a larger one a few months later carrying nearly 300 people who had been at sea for nearly seven months. Amnesty International expressed frustration that it was local fishermen, not Indonesian officials, who rescued the second boat.
“The government, not private individuals, should have saved these lives,” Usman Hamid, the group’s Indonesia executive director, said at the time.
On Thursday, Mr. Wijaya of the government’s refugee task force said that the passengers from the rescued boat would undergo health screenings and be placed in shelters after the Navy delivered them safely to Aceh.
“As for them going to a third country, we will defer to U.N.H.C.R.,” he added. “We hope it is immediately.”