Shunned by much of Asia, migrants welcomed in Aceh

From rescuing migrants at sea to donating all they can, residents of Indonesia`s Islamic Aceh province are warmly welcoming hundreds of desperate fellow Muslims who have fled their homelands -- a contrast to the rejection they face elsewhere in Southeast Asia. 

Aceh: From rescuing migrants at sea to donating all they can, residents of Indonesia`s Islamic Aceh province are warmly welcoming hundreds of desperate fellow Muslims who have fled their homelands -- a contrast to the rejection they face elsewhere in Southeast Asia. 

Around 1,800 Rohingya and Bangladeshi boatpeople have landed in Aceh in recent days, abandoned by people-smugglers after their boat journeys to Malaysia were disrupted by a Thai crackdown on long-established routes. 

Migrants have also arrived in Malaysia and Thailand after being dumped by smugglers. Thousands more are still believed to be stranded at sea with little food and water.

The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have insisted on turning back seaworthy vessels, sparking outrage. 

Many in Aceh, the only part of Indonesia that implements Islamic sharia law, are dismayed by the national government`s policy and have opened their arms to those who have made it to shore.

"They need our help. We saw that they are in a terrible condition, thirsty, hungry and neglected," 18-year-old student Cut Haya told AFP in Langsa, where hundreds of migrants are being housed in temporary shelters.

"As human beings, we have to help them, especially because they are our Muslim brothers and sisters."

Along with compassion for their religious brethren, Acehnese are also showing empathy following their own troubled recent past, including a long-running separatist conflict.

The insurgency ran for three decades and only ended after a monster earthquake and tsunami struck Aceh in 2004, killing almost 170,000 in the western province and tens of thousands more in countries round the Indian Ocean. 

There has been an outpouring of public sympathy for the migrants, particularly the Rohingya, who are fleeing state-sanctioned persecution in their native Myanmar. The Bangladeshis are for the most part seeking to escape grinding poverty. Caught off guard when the boats arrived, authorities scrambled to find food and shelter for hundreds of exhausted people -- but where they have been stretched, ordinary Acehnese are lending a helping hand.

There has been a constant stream of Langsa residents bringing donations to the shelters in the small fishing town, with volunteers helping gather everything from eggs and noodles to basic toiletries and clothing.

In nearby fields, impromptu games of soccer and tug of war between locals and children from the camps have provided a brief escape for the young migrants from the misery of their situation.

Many get their first taste of Acehnese hospitality even before making it to shore -- many of the arrivals have been rescued by local fishermen. 

The latest batch came ashore early Wednesday, with fishermen saving more than 400 from two boats off the coast.

"We are giving first aid to these people, we are feeding them, giving them water and providing a comfortable place for them," said search-and-rescue official Sadikin, who goes by one name. 

But while the migrants wait indefinitely for refugee claims to be assessed -- a process the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says could take months -- attention is shifting to the others who could still be floating at sea.

A rally Tuesday attended by 100 people in the provincial capital Banda Aceh saw community groups demand more be done to save those still on the water, instead of turning them away.

"Back when the tsunami hit Aceh, people from all over the world came here to help us, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion," activist Muhammad Hamza told the rally. "Now it is time we show humanity by helping the Rohingya."

The country`s biggest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, condemned the government`s decision to bar migrant boats from coming to Indonesia, urging it to immediately rescue those in dire need.

"Where is our sense of humanity if we let them die at sea?" said Teungku Faisal Ali, chairman of the group`s Aceh branch.

Steve Hamilton, the IOM`s deputy chief of mission in Indonesia, said the response from the Acehnese people had been "fantastic", but not surprising given their history of war and suffering.

"They`ve seen great tragedy in their own province," he told AFP. "Aceh really understands what it means to have lost everything, because they went through it already."
 

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