Boat people grateful for sanctuary, baffled by Gambia offer

Boat people grateful for sanctuary, baffled by Gambia offer
A Rohingya migrant carrying a child stands onboard a fishing boat before being transported to shore, off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province.

BAYEUN, Indonesia - Boat people who have come ashore in Southeast Asia after harrowing journeys are delighted that Indonesia and Malaysia will give them temporary shelter -- although some were baffled by an offer of sanctuary in a tiny African nation they had never heard of.

Nearly 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have been rescued or swum to shore in recent days in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, after a Thai crackdown on long-established human-trafficking routes threw the illicit trade into chaos.

The three nations had sparked outrage by turning away some vessels, but on Wednesday Indonesia and Malaysia relented, saying they would no longer drive boats away and would give migrants temporary shelter.

Thailand did not sign on fully to the initiative, saying only that it would no longer push boats out of Thai waters.

In Indonesia's western Aceh province, where around 1,800 Rohingya -- a persecuted Muslim minority from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar -- and Bangladeshis have landed since the crisis began, the news was greeted with joy.

"I am happy now that Indonesia and Malaysia are accepting Rohingya," said Muhammadul Hasson, a 17-year-old who was rescued last week along with hundreds of other desperate people.

"Everything will be better now. People in Arakan are tortured continuously and they will keep on coming," he added, referring to the Rohingya's home state of Rakhine in western Myanmar.

But there was some confusion over an offer from the impoverished West African nation of Gambia to take in all Rohingya migrants as part of its "sacred duty" to alleviate the suffering of fellow Muslims.

Asked about the offer, Hasson simply responded: "What is the meaning of Gambia?"

Muhammad Jaber, a 27-year-old Rohingya, was another migrant who was puzzled when confronted with the idea of going to live in a country thousands of miles away that he knew nothing about.

However, he concluded: "If it is a Muslim country and they accept us as their citizens, why not?"

Gambia's offer stands in stark contrast with iron-fisted President Yahya Jammeh's professed disdain for the thousands of African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, including many from his own country.

'Everything will be better now'

The migrants' joy at the decision by Malaysia and Indonesia was untempered, however.

The stateless Rohingya suffer constant abuse in Myanmar, with the government insisting they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

They have long been boarding rickety boats to cross the Bay of Bengal, normally headed for relatively affluent, Muslim-majority Malaysia, and have in recent years been joined by Bangladeshis seeking to escape grinding poverty.

Jaber said he did not feel any anger towards Indonesia or Malaysia, despite their previous hardline stance.

Both countries are now offering to accept the boat people for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies. Jakarta is not obliged to resettle migrants as it is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

"We are ready to go to any country where they can accept us as citizens, but we will not go back to Myanmar," Jaber said.

The migrants normally spend months at sea before making it to land and grim tales have emerged, with Rohingya and Bangladeshis on one boat telling how they fought fierce battles over dwindling supplies that left at least 100 dead.

Some of the latest arrivals, from a group of 400 Rohingya rescued off the Aceh coast Wednesday, were being housed in a hastily erected tent village in the ruins of an old building in the village of Bayeun.

They told of a horrific voyage, drifting helplessly in the final days as they were pushed away by Thailand and then Malaysia, and said sending them back to Myanmar would be a death sentence.

"If the government of Indonesia returns us to Myanmar, it is the same as killing us," said Sohidullah, 45.

Hasson said he was happy to go to any other nation, but he had one condition: "I never want to go to another country by boat. Never again."

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