Local people said they felt compelled to act. A day earlier, fishermen had spotted a rickety boat filled with nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including dozens of children, stranded at sea.
Residents repeatedly urged the authorities to do something, but were told that the group could not be brought ashore as this could spread the coronavirus. Worried that people’s lives would be in immediate danger, they took matters into their own hands and left with ropes to tie the boat to safety.
“We didn’t have to worry about the problems [with the authorities] because we think what we did was the right thing, “said Nasruddin Guechik, who is the chief of the nearby village of Kampung. When people saw the refugees, it was impossible not to act, he said. “Just looking at the refugees, we were crying”,
A total of 94 refugees, including a pregnant woman, were saved. Amnesty International described the rescuers’ actions as “a moment of optimism and solidarity”.
In recent months, governments in Southeast Asia have repeatedly denied boats carrying Rohingya refugees, blaming concerns over the coronavirus.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Friday that the country could no longer accommodate Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, warning that the country was already overwhelmed by the Covid-19 epidemic. It has registered more than 8,000 cases to date.
Malaysia has not only refused boats, but is reportedly considering repairing the broken boats of the migrants it detained so that they can be sent back to sea. Last week, sources told Reuters that authorities are planning to repair a damaged boat so that 300 new arrivals could be sent back to sea, where they had been stranded for months. Survivors detained in Malaysia said dozens died on board and bodies were thrown into the water.
Each year, thousands of Rohingyas take perilous journeys to flee the persecution in Myanmar or to escape the gruesome conditions of refugee camps in Bangladesh. Traffickers prey on desperate communities, promising the chance of a better life abroad.
It is not clear how many boats are stranded, but it is likely that hundreds of boats will be stranded at sea.
Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director Usman Hamid said governments in the region must take urgent action to prevent further deaths and called on the Indonesian authorities to protect the 94 refugees rescued on Thursday.
“After all they have gone through at sea, what they need most now is shelter and security,” he said. “The Indonesian government must provide for the basic needs of these survivors and must not, in any case, send them back to sea.”
In Aceh, Guechik said residents had served refugees with food and provided clothing. They are now housed in a building that was previously an immigration center.
He was proud of his community, he said. “There is a great possibility that they could have died in the ocean if the villagers had not acted. Waiting for the government was taking too long. “