Human rights groups are becoming increasingly outspoken in their criticism of the Indonesian government, describing their handling of the group as “distressing”, “gratuitous” and “intimidating”. A boatload of Sri Lankans has spent a night ashore in a tent in Indonesia as authorities wait for the weather to improve before “escorting” the 44 back out to sea.
The 44, including a pregnant woman and nine children, became stranded off Lhoknga in Aceh – on the northwest tip of Sumatra Island – last Saturday when their boat’s engine failed amid bad weather.
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They had left India 20 days before with hopes of getting to Australia.
On Thursday warning shots were fired into the air when six women jumped off the boat, which was beached near shore, and tried to make it to the land.
A spokesman for Human Rights Watch Asia division said the shots “added gratuitous insult to the injury of their plight”.
“The Indonesian government’s handling of this matter has been a distressing series of confusing and contradictory missteps that have failed to prioritise the rights and needs of that group of Sri Lankans,” he said.
Authorities had planned to escort the boat out of Indonesian waters late on Friday, but due to bad weather and large surf, the Aceh provincial police chief, Husein Hamidi, said the boat people instead took shelter in a tent on shore and were provided with food.
Once the weather improved, they would be returned to the boat and escorted out of Indonesian waters, he said.
Amnesty International has called on the government to allow the group to be properly processed by the UN Refugee Agency rather than deploy “crude intimidation tactics”.
“Indonesia risks squandering the goodwill it generated when it provided assistance last year to hundreds of refugees and migrants who had been stranded on the Andaman Sea,” Josef Benedict from Amnesty International said.
This week’s actions by Indonesia “invite comparisons with other countries that have a notorious record of setting desperate people adrift and at risk of death on the high seas”, he added.
Australia’s policy of turning back boats has come under criticism by the UNHCR which says its approach in the region has created a “bottleneck” and placed more pressure on countries like Indonesia.
More than 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the UNHCR in the archipelago and detention centres in Indonesia are overflowing.