Indonesia has taken in nine shipwreck survivors believed to be refugees from Myanmar, ending weeks of uncertainty for the men, who were refused permission to come ashore in Singapore.
The nine men had been in limbo off Singapore aboard the Liberia-flagged cargo ship that saved them after their vessel sank in Myanmar waters. Singapore authorities this month denied entry to them and 40 other survivors rescued from the shipwreck by a Vietnamese freighter, highlighting the wariness among Southeast Asian governments to accept asylum seekers from a recent exodus caused by ethnic violence in Myanmar.
Indonesian authorities Sunday sent a vessel to take the nine men off the X-Press Hoogly in waters off the archipelago nation’s Batam Island, according to an official at the cargo ship’s owner, Hammonia Reederei. The Hamburg-based shipper had previously appealed to Singapore and other unnamed countries to take the nine men in, but to no avail.
Indonesian officials weren’t immediately able to confirm the move, but a spokesman for the country’s immigration office said the agency would typically house such people at an immigration detention center, verify if they qualify as asylum seekers and ask the United Nations refugee agency to seek an alternative asylum destination for them.
The nine men were part of a group of 49 survivors that had been aboard the Nagu, which was carrying about 250 people when it sank Dec. 5 after making a port call in Myanmar’s western Rakhine province and was bound for Malaysia, according to the Indian coast guard. The Rakhine region has been embroiled in violence in recent months that has left tens of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya people homeless.
The 40 other survivors, rescued by the Vietnam-flagged Nosco Victory, were taken in by Malaysian authorities Dec. 18 after appeals from the U.N. refugee agency and that ship’s owner, the Northern Shipping Joint Stock Co., or Nosco. They are currently being housed in a detention center, but it isn’t clear what Malaysia plans to do with them.
The U.N. refugee agency plans to seek access to the 49 men and provide assistance to them, including determining if any of them are in need of international protection, said Vivian Tan, a Bangkok-based spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
It isn’t clear whether the survivors are Rohingya, whose plight has put pressure on Myanmar’s government. The 40 men saved by the Nosco Victory say they are Muslims–16 to 45 years old–from Rakhine state, according to a manifest seen by The Wall Street Journal and prepared by a marine insurer, which interviewed the survivors. The nine aboard the X-Press Hoogly are all male, but their identities weren’t clear, the Hammonia official said.
The incident comes as civil-society groups warn that growing numbers of Rohingya refugees are fleeing Rakhine by boat to nearby countries, prompted by Bangladesh’s continued closure of its border. Some recent attempts have ended in tragedy, including an October sinking in which about 130 Rohingya were reportedly killed.
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia aren’t signatories to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, which establishes a basic framework for protecting people escaping persecution. The convention bars signatories from expelling recognized refugees–with some exceptions–or punishing refugees for illegal entry.
Singapore has in the past said it couldn’t accept refugees and asylum seekers because of its small size and limited resources, although it would help such people find other asylum destinations. Malaysia, meanwhile, has become a reluctant host over the years to some 24,000 Rohingya, who form one of the largest refugee groups in the Muslim-majority country, where asylum-seekers are vulnerable to arrest for immigration offenses, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
The Nosco Victory and the X-Press Hoogly had been scheduled to stop in Singapore earlier this month, but the city-state’s Maritime and Port Authority said it had denied both ships entry because the rescued men onboard both vessels “do not appear to be persons eligible to enter Singapore.”
But the Authority said Monday that it has now given the X-Press Hoogly permission to enter Singapore’s port after being notified by the ship’s owner that the nine rescued men onboard have disembarked.
– by Chun Han Wong, Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur and I Made Sentana in Jakarta contributed to this report.
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