Migrants in Indonesia boat stand-off brought ashore: official

20 June 2016
Migrants in Indonesia boat stand-off brought ashore: official
Indonesian security personnel push a stranded Sri Lankan boat using a backhoe before towing it into the open sea, at Lhoknga beach, Aceh Province, Indonesia, 20 June 2016. Photo: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA

Dozens of Sri Lankan migrants stranded on a boat off Indonesia were allowed to come ashore Saturday after a tense stand-off, but local authorities insist they will still be towed back to sea.
The 44 migrants, who include many women and children, were allowed to disembark in Aceh province and take refuge in tents, a week after their Indian-flagged vessel broke down en route to Australia.
Authorities in the western province had drawn international condemnation by refusing to allow the migrants ashore, but relented Saturday as huge waves threatened to upend the damaged boat.
However a local official said authorities would proceed as planned and tow the migrants out to international waters once their boat had been repaired and the weather improved.
"The policy is still the same as yesterday," Al Hudri, the head of social services in Aceh province, told AFP.
"After the boat is repaired, they will be towed back to sea and sent home."
He said the migrants were brought ashore as rough seas and strong winds were threatening to capsize the damaged vessel.
The boat had suffered serious damage during its journey, with engine trouble and holes that needed repairing before it would be seaworthy, he added.
In the meantime a kitchen has been set up to feed those brought ashore, as police began photographing the migrants in a bid to establish identities, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
The Sri Lankans were prevented from coming ashore for a week, despite Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla ordering Aceh officials to allow them to disembark.
"We're happy to see that is finally being implemented," said Lilianne Fan, international director of Aceh NGO the Geutanyoe Foundation, whose team on the ground witnessed the disembarkation.
"At this point the most urgent thing from our point of view is that immediate access is given to the UNHCR," she added, referring to the UN refugee agency.
When asked if the UNHCR teams in Lhoknga -- the town where the boat ran aground -- had been granted access to the refugees, Hudri said: "No, not yet".
The week-long impasse boiled over Thursday when police fired a warning shot to disperse a crowd that had swarmed around the vessel.
That incident prompted Amnesty International on Friday to issue a statement accusing local authorities of employing "crude intimidation tactics" against the migrants.
"The immigration office and security forces in Aceh are flouting the authority of their own Vice President and not letting the UNHCR do its job," Josef Benedict of Amnesty International said in a statement.
Hundreds of Myanmar Rohingya came ashore in Aceh last year during a regional boat people crisis and were warmly welcomed by residents of the staunchly Islamic province, who felt sympathy for their plight as a persecuted Muslim minority.