Jakarta – Amnesty International has called on Indonesian authorities to ensure immediate protection for dozens of Rohingya refugees, who were rescued by local fishermen after they became stranded in the waters off North Aceh on Wednesday.
"These children, women and men have likely been at sea for weeks, if not months. Their basic needs, such as food, clothes, water, medicines and proper shelter, must be met," Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said in a statement.
The human rights group also urged Indonesia to "step up" dialogue with regional leaders to save the refugees.
"The Indonesian government must initiate intensive communication with country leaders in ASEAN and the Bali Process to rescue all of the people still stuck on perilous boats," Usman said.
The Bali Process is a multistate framework cochaired by Indonesia and Australia that facilitate discussion and information sharing on refugees, human trafficking and related transnational issues. Established in 2002, the framework has 49 members, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand, as well as several international agencies.
Meanwhile, Malaysia is considering a plan to turn back nearly 300 Rohingya refugees detained by local authorities after they arrived last week on a damaged boat, Reuters reported.
Kuala Lumpur said it would no longer accept Rohingya refugees after it tightened its borders to prevent a new wave of coronavirus infections.
Amnesty International has criticized Malaysia's plan as "hugely alarming" and a clear violation of international law.
"In the time of COVID-19, we also urge all countries in the region to ensure the wellbeing of refugees and not to send them back to the sea. Under international law, all countries have the obligation to protect and rescue people at risk of serious harm," Usman said.
Aceh authorities confirmed on Wednesday that at least 94 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, were stranded in the waters off the coast of Seunuddon district, North Aceh.
However, Amnesty International Indonesia estimated that the number of refugees could be as high as 145, and were first spotted in apparent distress. The refugees are thought to have fled the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
Three Indonesian fishermen who were apparently passing nearby rescued the refugees from a listing cargo vessel and took the refugees aboard their fishing boat.
Members of the police and the Indonesian Military were reportedly deployed to check on the condition of any passengers remaining on the stranded vessel. Local authorities also confirmed that they were coordinating on managing the refugees.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Wednesday that Indonesia and other ASEAN countries must prioritize the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar's Rakhine state, although she acknowledge that realizing the plan was unlikely during the pandemic.
"Efforts shall continue to prepare voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation [of the refugees]," she said, while calling for measures to prevent more refugees from making such a dangerous journey by sea.
"They are victims of migrant smuggling and human trafficking. There must be preventive measures against it," she said. (trn)