While governments have refused to receive migrants stranded in Andaman Sea, Aceh villagers have stepped up to fill humanitarian void
When Myusup Mansur, a fisherman from the small island village of Pusung, first caught a glimpse of the boat in the distance in waters off North Sumatra, it was dark and impossible for him to make out the hundreds of migrants huddled on the deck.
It was only when two other fishermen pulled up and told him what they had seen that he realised what was happening: scores of people were jumping from the boat into the sea.
They headed in the direction of the boat while radioing in for rescue reinforcement on the way. “We helped them because they needed help,” said Mansur, 38. “What is more human than that?”
Six hundred and seventy-seven migrants were brought ashore late last Thursday by Mansur and his fellow fishermen. While governments around the region have refused to receive what is thought to be thousands of migrants from Burma and Bangladesh stranded and starving in the Andaman Sea, the fishermen of Indonesia have stepped up to fill the humanitarian void.
More than 1,350 migrants, a mixture of ethnic Rohingya from Burma and migrants from Bangladesh, have landed on the shores of Aceh, Indonesia, this week and it has been the fishermen who have come to their rescue.
Mansur and the other two fishermen’s small boats could each take only about 30 people but there were many more migrants waiting to be rescued. “I was lost for words,” he said. “I was panicked, because I have never seen so many people in the water like that. I kept pulling them from the water one by one, I couldn’t count how many, but my boat was full. After that I couldn’t take any more and there were still people crying for help.
“I didn’t understand their language. I couldn’t ask them anything, and I couldn’t understand what they were asking,” he added. “They just kept calling to me for help.”
Nearly two hours passed before six large fishing boats that had also been out at sea arrived to help. The fishermen laboured together, pulling the migrants from the sea and transferring them from boat to boat. Finally Mansur linked his small turquoise and orange boat to the migrant vessel to collect the women and children who had remained on board. He said he would do the same again if faced with another similar situation.
Suryadi, who only uses one name, from the fishermen association in Langsa, Aceh, said: “We helped out of solidarity. If we find someone in the ocean we have to help them no matter who they are. The police did not like us helping but we could not avoid it. Our sense of humanity was higher. So we just helped with the limited resources that we had at the time.”
Over recent weeks, boats full of migrants have been pushed back and forth between the navies of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, with no country willing to take them in. The United Nations estimates there are up to 8,000 more migrants languishing at sea.
Those who have been rescued and brought to land have recounted horrific stories of murders over the last supplies of water and food during almost a month stranded at sea.
Andreas Harsono, from Human Rights Watch in Jakarta, said the fishermen were offering assistance that official channels had failed to provide. “The fact that these fishermen are helping these people shows that they have a better humanitarian understanding than government officials in Jakarta,” he said.
Harsono said that in Aceh, a province that in the past was racked by a decades-long separatist conflict, people understood suffering and the value of compassion. In Mansur’s village a 45-minute boat ride away from the Langsa temporary camp where the 677 migrants are now being housed, that observation resonates.
When Mansur collected 30 women and children at sea and made the six-hour journey back to Pusung, the migrants were greeted with open arms. “We bought them a big bunch of bananas and water and they all bathed in our homes,” said Saipul Umar, 54. “They were so weak, especially the small children. They were traumatised.”
The migrants were given food, water, coffee and cakes, and a place to wash. “We treated them like family,” said Sulaiman, 76. Others asked questions about their stories and why they were fleeing their countries.
After learning about the treatment of the ethnic Rohingya in Burma, where they are persecuted and denied citizenship, one village resident said that perhaps the migrants should have stayed in Pusung.
“They wanted to live here,” she said, “They didn’t want to go.”