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Indonesia to allow stranded Rohingya boat to seek refuge

The photo, taken on December 27, 2021, shows a wooden boat transporting Rohingya refugees after it was intercepted in the waters off Bireuen, Aceh province, and denied refuge in Indonesia. (Photo by AFP)

Indonesia says it will allow a boat packed with persecuted Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar stranded off its coast to dock.

Armed Wijaya, head of the national task force on refugees, said on Wednesday the boat, which is now about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the coastal town of Bireun in Aceh province, would be towed to shore on humanitarian grounds. “The decision was taken after considering the emergency condition of the refugees on that boat.”

The official further said the task force will coordinate with related stakeholders to provide shelter and logistics for the refugees. “As it is now in the middle of the pandemic, all refugees will undergo medical screening.”

Local officials in Aceh said on Tuesday they would provide the roughly 120 passengers on board with food, medicine and water, but would not allow them to seek refuge in Indonesia. The authorities said they planned to push them into the neighboring country of Malaysia after fixing their boat.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had also called on the Indonesian government to allow the boat to seek refuge.

Indonesian authorities first spotted the wooden boat two days ago, stranded about 70 nautical miles off the Indonesian coast, according to a local navy commander. Local fishermen had alerted them on December 25.

Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar have for years sailed to countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia between November and April when the seas are calm.

Many have been turned away.

The Rohingya frequently escape the Apartheid-like conditions in the state of Rakhine, where their movements and access to services are severely curtailed. In 2020, nearly three dozen Rohingya died on a ship that drifted for weeks after it failed to reach Malaysia.

Nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees remain stuck in squalid, crowded conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Members of the Muslim minority were forced to flee their homes in 2017. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims were killed, raped, tortured, or arrested by the junta forces, according to the UN, which has described the community in Rakhine as the most persecuted minority in the world. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, saying they are nationals of Bangladesh, which in turn, says they are natives of Myanmar.

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