JAKARTA, June 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations refugee agency on Monday called for access to a group of migrants believed to be from Sri Lanka, following a week-long standoff that saw their boat stranded off the coast of Indonesia.
The boat carrying the 44 migrants, including women and children, was reportedly en route to Australia and had drifted into Indonesian waters near northern Aceh province on June 11 after encountering engine trouble.
Local officials had initially stopped the migrants from disembarking and said it must sail on, but then allowed them ashore over the weekend amid criticism from refugee advocacy groups.
However, UNHCR in Indonesia said that since the incident, it had not been granted access to the group to determine their status.
“We haven’t been given access, and I am hoping that we will. We have indicated to the government that we are standing by and we are ready to assist,” said UNHCR’s Indonesia representative Thomas Vargas.
“When there are people that have been on a boat like this and have now landed on the shores of a country, we very much hope that the country will allow us access,” he told reporters after an event held to commemorate World Refugee Day.
Vargas said UNHCR has been given no reason for the lack of access, but he declined to comment when asked if it signalled Indonesia might start pushing back asylum-seekers’ boats, like neighbouring Australia.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the U.N.’s refugee convention, but it has in the past allowed migrants ashore on humanitarian grounds.
“It has been the practice of the government to allow these people on such boats to disembark and for UNHCR to have access. My sincere hope that this tradition, which so far has been very strong, will continue,” Vargas added.
Indonesia and Malaysia took in thousands of migrants who were found adrift in the Andaman Sea in the Asian migrant crisis last year, following a Thai crackdown on human trafficking.
More than 1,000 migrants from Myanmar - mostly persecuted Rohingya minorities - and Bangladesh landed in Aceh at the time.
Thailand had been the first stop on the most common trafficking route used by criminals preying on Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis seeking to escape poverty.
Indonesia, meanwhile, is a popular transit point for asylum-seekers and migrants from the Middle East and South Asia hoping to reach Australia, often traveling in rickety boats.
Indonesia currently has about 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia, according to UNHCR. (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)