On Thursday afternoon, residents of Aceh, Indonesia, waded back and forth in water helping Rohingya refugees clamber to safety. Exhausted children were passed between rescuers.
On Lancok beach, where survivors gathered, a man knelt with his head on the sand, thankful to be alive. Another embraced a member of the rescue team tightly.
Local people said they had felt compelled to act. A day earlier, fishermen had spotted a rickety boat packed with almost 100 Rohingya refugees, including dozens of children, stranded at sea.
Residents repeatedly urged the authorities to do something, but they were told the group could not be brought to shore because to do so would risk spreading coronavirus. Worried that people’s lives were in immediate danger, they took matters into their own hands and sailed out with ropes to tether the boat to safety.
“We didn’t worry about getting into problems [with the authorities] because we believe that what we did was the right thing,” said Nasruddin Guechik, who is head of the nearby village of Kampung. When people had seen the refugees, it had been impossible not to act, he said. “Just looking at the refugees, we were crying,”
A total of 94 refugees, including one pregnant woman, were saved. Amnesty International described the rescuers actions as “a moment of optimism and solidarity”.
Over recent months, governments across south-east Asia have repeatedly turned away boats carrying Rohingya refugees, blaming concerns over the coronavirus.
On Friday the Malaysian prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, said the country could no longer take in Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, warning that the country was already overwhelmed by the Covid-19 outbreak. It has registered more than 8,000 cases to date.
Not only has Malaysia turned boats away but it is reportedly considering fixing the broken boats of migrants it has detained so that they can be sent back to sea again. Sources told Reuters last week that the authorities planned to mend a damaged boat so that 300 recent arrivals could be returned to sea, where they had been stranded for months. Survivors detained in Malaysia said dozens of people had died onboard and bodies had been thrown into the water.
Every year thousands of Rohingya embark on perilous journeys to flee persecution in Myanmar or to escape squalid conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Traffickers prey upon desperate communities, promising the chance of a better life abroad.
It is not clear how many more boats remain stranded, but it is likely that hundreds are stuck at sea.
Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director, Usman Hamid, said urgent action was needed by governments in the region to prevent further deaths, and he called on Indonesian authorities to protect the 94 refugees rescued on Thursday.
“After all they have been through at sea, what they need the most now is shelter and safety,” he said. “The Indonesian government must provide these survivors with their basic needs and must under no circumstance send them back out to sea.”
In Aceh, Guechik said residents had served the refugees with food and provided clothes. They are now being housed in a building that was previously an immigration facility.
He was proud of his community, he said. “There is a big possibility that they could have died in the ocean if the villagers didn’t take action. Waiting for the government was taking too long.”
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