Indonesia denies turning away refugee boats (dpa German Press Agency)

Jakarta (dpa) – Indonesia denied having a policy of turning away refugee boats Wednesday, after its navy towed a vessel carrying hundreds of people believed to be persecuted Rohingyas from Myanmar back out to sea.

Even though Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention, it is always willing to help people in distress, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said.

His remarks came after the military said it had towed a migrant boat out of Indonesian waters, and insisted that they had intended to go to Malaysia instead.

“They didn’t want to go to Indonesia,” Arrmanatha said. “They only asked for clean water and food. We can’t force them or prevent them.

“If we see people entering Indonesian waters and they need help, we will help,” he said.

Nearly 600 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas were rescued from another boat off Indonesia’s Aceh province on Sunday.

They were sheltering in a sports hall in North Aceh district, where they had received food and medical care, but authorities said they would be relocated soon to a better location.

The International Organization for Migration said Tuesday that the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas were victims of people smuggling.

It said two of the migrants reported that the captain of the boat had abandoned them in Indonesian waters and escaped in a speedboat.

Many Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority in predominately Buddhist Myanmar, travel through Thailand to reach the Muslim-majority Malaysia or Indonesia.

The Rohingyas have suffered decades of state-sanctioned discrimination and ethnic violence.