Chaideer Mahyuddin and Marchio Gorbiano (AFP), Sabang, Aceh/Jakarta – More than 200 Rohingya refugees were huddled on the beaches of Sabang island, Aceh, Wednesday after weeks adrift on a wooden boat, as authorities rejected locals' efforts to push the members of the persecuted Myanmar minority back to sea.
The latest arrivals were part of more than 1,000 desperate and exhausted members of the group who landed on the shores of Aceh in western Indonesia in the last week.
Thousands of the mostly Muslim Rohingya risk their lives each year making sea journeys from refugee camps in Bangladesh, often in flimsy boats, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.
The latest group of 219 refugees, which included 72 men, 91 women and 56 children, arrived in Sabang city in Aceh province, located on an island off the tip of northern Sumatra, at around 11 p.m. local timeTuesday.
But they were rejected by locals who threatened to put them back to sea. "How can we go anywhere?" 15-year-old Rohingya refugee Abdul Rahman asked. "We don't want to go back."
Local authorities then agreed to their relocation by ferry later on Wednesday to a temporary shelter in one of Aceh's biggest cities, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
"The plan is for the refugees to be relocated to a shelter in Lhokseumawe," Sabang social agency head Naufal told AFP.
He said the relocation had been coordinated with UNHCR and the refugees had been given food and drink after their arrival.
"The (local) government decided to take them to a place designated by the national government," UN refugee agency protection associate Faisal Rahman told AFP on Wednesday.
The group had spent 15 days at sea after leaving Bangladesh for Aceh, Abdul Rahman said.
The engine of their vessel – which could be seen bobbing offshore – had been damaged, leaving them unable to travel elsewhere, he added.
UNHCR said Acehnese locals have sought to push Rohingya boats from Bangladesh back to sea three times in the last week.
"The situation in the field now is not good. The rejection virus has been spread to all people," said Faisal Rahman.
Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, have long been sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslims.
But some say their patience has been tested, claiming the Rohingya consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.
The refugees were seen huddled on a beach in Sabang on Wednesday, surrounded by a yellow cordon and security officers to stop them from running away.
Next to screaming babies, some children on the beach whacked the sand and built sandcastles, seemingly oblivious to the fractious situation unfolding around them.
'Emergency, humanitarian crisis'
The UN agency appealed to Sabang's mayor to find the refugees safe shelter overnight but to no avail, Faisal Rahman said.
But it later negotiated a delay to the refugees being pushed back to sea, while the local community demanded they be relocated immediately, said the UN official.
More than a million from the ethnic group have fled Myanmar since the 1990s, most in the wake of a 2017 military crackdown that forced the bulk of them to settle in camps in Bangladesh.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, complaining that neighboring countries have shut their doors.
But rights groups said Jakarta should be doing more to help under other international conventions such as those that enshrine the safety of life at sea.
"These conventions also oblige Indonesia to save those who are in danger at sea," Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid told AFP.
"The latest wave of new refugees shows there is an emergency and humanitarian crisis experienced by the Rohingya."
On Tuesday, 256 other Rohingya arrivals were given a reprieve when Indonesia granted them three months of temporary shelter after locals threatened to again turn them back to sea.
The refugees were moved on Tuesday evening to the same Lhokseumawe facility where the Sabang group were to be relocated.
Ann Maymann, representative of the UN refugee agency in Indonesia, told AFP the decision was "better... than having the refugees stay at a beach" with no security.