The Indonesian government will not turn away Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are being housed in a sports complex in Lhoksukon town in North Aceh regency, said Foreign Ministry officials.
So far, 582 migrants, including many ethnic Muslim Rohingya, have been given refuge in the overcrowded sports centre since local police found them stranded in boats in the waters off the regency over the weekend.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir yesterday said Indonesia did not sign a 1951 convention on refugees, but it will not turn them away.
"What Indonesia has done is given shelter and food to illegal migrants," he was quoted as saying by tribunnews.com.
"What we do not do is force them back onto their boats and expel them from the country." The regional administration, in co-operation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), will look for uninhabited islands in the country to accommodate the migrants.
The hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers, mostly Muslims, were evacuated from boats after getting stranded in northern Aceh waters, after failing to land in Malaysia. Dozens of Rohingya have sought political asylum in Medan, North Sumatra.
Earlier this week, Indonesian officials said they had pushed back one boat and directed it to Malaysia after providing the occupants with food and water.
Some of the boats that found their way to Indonesia had no choice but to stop after running out of fuel or getting lost.
"The (Myanmar) government has created this crisis with its continued persecution of the Rohingya," said Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have made things much worse with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of 'boat people' that put thousands of lives at risk.
"Other governments should urge the three governments to work together to rescue these desperate people and offer them humanitarian aid, help in processing claims, and resettlement places."
Mr Robertson said if South- east Asian nations are genuinely concerned about the mass flight of Rohingya from Myanmar, they should demand that Myanmar immediately end widespread rights abuses against the population.
"Ending discriminatory policies and ensuring full security so that Rohingya can safely and with dignity return to their homes in (Rakhine) State would be a good place to start," he said.
As facilities at the cramped centre in Lhoksukon town reached breaking point, with few toilets and poor ventilation, the local authorities began transferring migrants by bus on Wednesday afternoon to a larger complex in Kuala Cangkoi, a fishing town on the north coast. It was built as a tsunami evacuation centre and was not in use.
IOM deputy chief of mission Steve Hamilton told Agence France-Presse: "These people could be there for six, seven, eight or nine months before they get transferred somewhere else. There's nowhere to transfer them."
This article was first published on May 15, 2015.
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