Indonesian authorities said Wednesday they will push a boat containing 120 Rohingya Muslims back to international waters despite calls from the United Nations refugee agency to allow the passengers to disembark after being adrift for days off the country's northernmost province of Aceh.
The boat is reportedly leaking and has a damaged engine, is floating in the open sea in harsh weather, and may be at risk of capsizing, the UNHCR said Tuesday.
“UNHCR is deeply concerned for the safety and lives of those onboard,” it said in a statement. “To prevent needless loss of life, we strongly urge the Indonesian government to allow safe disembarkation immediately.”
The boat was first sighted by local fishermen on Sunday in waters about 60 miles (96 kilometers) off the coast of Bireuen, a district in Aceh province, said Badruddin Yunus, the leader of the local tribal fishing community. He said fishermen were unable to tow the broken-down wooden boat but had provided food, water and clothes to the hungry passengers, including 60 women, 51 children and nine men.
“Their condition looks weak but fine,” said Yunus, adding that the refugees said they wanted to go to Malaysia and had been at sea for 28 days before their boat's engine broke.
Local officials, supported by the police and navy, have provided food, medicine, a new boat engine and a technician to help repair the Rohingya boat, and they will push it back to international waters once it is fixed, said Bireuen district chief Muzakkar Gani, who also cited concerns that some of the refugees might have COVID-19.
Gani said local officials were still waiting for directives from the central government in Jakarta but in the meantime planned to repair the boat so the refugees could sail onward to Malaysia.
Aceh Police spokesperson Winardy said officials planned to push the boat out of Indonesian waters.
“We will repair their boat and give them fuel and only monitor its movement to Malaysia,” said Winardy, who goes by a single name.
A refugee task force unit at Indonesia's Coordinating Ministry for Political, Law and Security Affairs could not immediately be reached for comment.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.
Groups of Rohingya have attempted to leave the crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and travel by sea in hazardous voyages to other Muslim-majority countries in the region.
Muslim-dominated Malaysia has been a common destination for boats and traffickers have promised the refugees a better life there. But many Rohingya refugees who land in Malaysia face detention.
Although Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, the UNHCR said that a 2016 presidential regulation provides a national legal framework governing the treatment of refugees on boats in distress near Indonesia and to help them disembark.
These provisions have been implemented for years, most recently in June when 81 Rohingya refugees were rescued off the coast of East Aceh.