Jakarta (dpa) – Indonesian fishermen and marine police rescued nearly 800 migrants from a sinking vessel on Friday, a military official said, as South-East Asia’s migrant crisis continued to unfold.
The migrants, mostly thought to be people from Myanmar and Bangladesh from the Rohingya ethnic group, were initially prevented from reaching the shore pending a consultation with the Foreign Ministry, military spokesman Fuad Basya said.
However because their boat was about to sink off Aceh, local fisherman and marine police moved to rescue the migrants and took them to the Kuala Langsa port in Aceh’s Langsa city.
“Our job is to prevent undocumented ships from entering our territory, but if it is a humanitarian situation we will help,” Fuad said.
Langsa police chief Sunarya Sik said the boat was crowded and the passengers were jostling when it was spotted by fishermen.
“According to information from the migrants, they had entered Malaysian waters but Malaysian security authorities turned them away,” the police chief was quoted as saying by Tempo.co news website.
Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, but has in the past sheltered migrants pending the verification of their refugee status by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
The military has said it towed a migrant boat out of Indonesian waters on Monday, insisting that the migrants intended to go to Malaysia.
Nearly 600 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas were rescued from another boat off Indonesia’s Aceh province on Sunday.
In Kuala Lumpur on Friday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called for an international solution to the worsening situation.
“This is an issue of international and regional importance,” he said in a statement. “We are in contact with all relevant parties with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis.”
Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency beefed up its patrols on its waters to prevent migrants from entering the country, after more than 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people landed in the northern island of Langkawi earlier in the week.
On Wednesday, Malaysia maritime patrols intercepted two vessels filled with about 1,000 migrants.
One of the vessels was escorted out of the country’s waters while the other – which suffered damage – was undergoing repairs before it would be sent back to its point of origin.
Thai authorities also turned back a boat thought to be carrying hundreds of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar on Friday.
The Thai navy spotted a boat off the south-west coast late Thursday, and towed it back out to sea after giving the migrants food, water and medicine, the Bangkok Post reported.
“About 10 people died during the journey,” one of them shouted in Rohingya to a boat of reporters that drew alongside. “We threw their bodies into the water.”
The policy of pushing migrant boats back out to sea is putting the lives of migrants at serious risk, UN rights chief Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.
Such practices “will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths,” the UN high commissioner for human rights said, calling them “incomprehensible and inhumane.”
Zeid says the Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants need protection, and he adds that “just because they have taken to boats, does not mean they forfeit the human rights afforded to every human being under international law.”
Some 920 mostly people from the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar died in the Bay of Bengal between September and March, according to the UN rights chief’s office.
Thailand has proposed temporary camps for migrants on its territory, but would wait until a regional meeting scheduled for May 29 before setting any up as it “cannot go it alone,” a security advisor to the government was quoted as saying.
Thousands of Rohingya, a stateless minority in predominately Buddhist Myanmar, travel through Thailand each month to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia or Indonesia.