LHOKSEUMAWE (Sumatra) • About 100 Rohingya asylum seekers stranded off the coast of Indonesia were pulled to shore yesterday by locals angered at the refusal of the authorities to give them shelter over coronavirus fears.
Some 94 people from the persecuted Myanmar minority - including 30 children - were reportedly plucked from a rickety wooden boat by fishermen this week before being intercepted by maritime officials from Sumatra island who pulled them closer to shore.
But officials in Lhokseumawe city in Aceh special district, on Sumatra's northern coast, refused to allow the group to land, citing coronavirus concerns.
Angry locals took matters into their own hands by jumping into boats which they used to pull the asylum seekers to shore.
Residents gathered on a local beach cheered the move, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.
"It's purely for humanitarian reasons," said fisherman Aples Kuari.
"We were sad seeing kids and pregnant women stranded at sea," he added.
Earlier yesterday, local police chief Eko Hartanto said they wanted to send the Rohingya back to sea rather than give them temporary shelter. But the authorities appeared to soften that stance in the face of local protests, and the weary group are now being housed temporarily in private residences.
The Rohingya would be checked by medical staff to ensure they were free of the coronavirus, according to Aceh's rescue agency.
Amnesty International has praised the spirit of the rescue.
"Today's disembarkation of Rohingya refugees is a moment of optimism and solidarity," said Amnesty's Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid in a statement.
"It's a credit to the community in Aceh who pushed hard and took risks so that these children, women and men could be brought to shore. They have shown the best of humanity."
Indonesia and neighbouring Malaysia are favoured destinations for Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution and violence in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, with thousands trying a perilous escape via smugglers across the sea every year.
Muslim-majority Indonesia has previously let Rohingya refugees land and allowed many to stay.
But their plight has been compounded in recent months as officials have turned them away over concerns that they could be harbouring the deadly coronavirus.
Around a million Rohingya live in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, where human traffickers also run lucrative operations promising to find them sanctuary abroad.
On Wednesday, a coast guard official in Malaysia said dozens of Rohingya were believed to have died during a four-month boat journey to the country.
There had been more than 300 people on board the boat which was intercepted by the authorities earlier this month, with 269 survivors given temporary shelter.
"Some of them died at sea. They were thrown overboard," Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency director Mohd Zubil Mat Som told reporters, without specifying the exact number.
Mr Zubil said the group had been on a mothership carrying more than 800 people before being transferred to a second vessel.
The authorities have not found the original boat, thought to be now carrying around 500 people.
Officials have also yet to confirm if the group who landed off Indonesia's coast belonged to that larger group.