Indonesia lets migrants ashore after week on stranded boat

LHOKNGA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia allowed a group of Tamil migrants from Sri Lanka to come ashore in Aceh province on Saturday after confining them to their stranded boat for a week, but is insisting they’ll be towed out to sea once the vessel is repaired.

Rights groups have criticized Indonesia’s treatment of the 44 men, women and children and the Aceh provincial government’s plan to abandon them in international waters.

The migrants were being sheltered in tents after being allowed off their boat Saturday during rough weather.

Ahmad Samadan, chief of the local immigration office, said authorities still plan to tow the migrants into international waters once further repairs to the vessel are completed.

“They are being sheltered ashore,” he said. “We still have our initial plan of towing them back to sea.”

The group was trying to reach the Australian territory of Christmas Island when their boat’s engine malfunctioned off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island. They had been at sea for about a month after leaving from India in the Indian-flagged boat. Amnesty International has said the minority Tamils may have been fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka.

Officials from the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations’ refugee agency have been denied access to the migrants. Earlier in the week, police fired a warning shot when six women tried to leave the beached vessel.

Some of the migrants appealed for a new boat, saying theirs was in bad condition.

“Please help us, this ship is not good. We are going to die with this boat,” Fakky Sharen, a 34-year-old migrant traveling with his wife and 18-month-old son, said Saturday during an exchange with lawmaker Nasir Djamil, who visited the group.

A 22-year-old woman who identified herself as Artika said she was very afraid because of the boat’s condition and wanted to be assisted by UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.

Indonesia last year opened its doors to stateless Muslim Rohingya boat people fleeing persecution in Myanmar, but officials have said the current situation is different because the migrants are trying to reach Australia.