Malaysia turns back Rohingya boat over virus fears

Thirty-two Rohingya died in a boat crammed with hundreds of “starving” men, women and children after 58 days in the Bay of Bengal after being denied entry by Malaysia and Thailand, officials said April 16. (File/AFP)
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Updated 17 April 2020

Malaysia turns back Rohingya boat over virus fears

  • Activists are now fearful that large numbers of Rohingya may be trapped on boats at sea and unable to reach other countries
  • The latest developments have sparked concerns of a repeat of a 2015 crisis when many Rohingya died at sea after Southeast Asian nations turned their boats back

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has denied entry to a boat carrying about 200 Rohingya due to coronavirus fears, the air force said, after news emerged this week that scores died on another crowded vessel.
Activists are now fearful that large numbers of Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, may be trapped on boats at sea and unable to reach other countries.
The latest developments have sparked concerns of a repeat of a 2015 crisis when many Rohingya died at sea after Southeast Asian nations turned their boats back following the collapse of long-established people smuggling routes.
In the latest incident, the Rohingya boat was spotted Thursday by a Malaysian air force jet off the northwestern island of Langkawi and then intercepted by two navy vessels backed by a helicopter.
Malaysian sailors gave the Rohingya food before escorting them out of the country’s waters, the air force said.
“With their poor settlements and living conditions... it is strongly feared that undocumented migrants who try to enter Malaysia either by land or sea will bring (COVID-19) into the country,” said an air force statement late Thursday.
It added that “maritime surveillance operations will be intensified.”
The development signalled that Malaysia, which is under a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the virus after recording more than 5,000 cases and 80 deaths, is toughening its stance to deny Rohingya entry.
While relatively few boats carrying the minority have arrived in Malaysia since the 2015 crisis, some have been allowed into the country. Earlier this month, 202 Rohingya landed in Langkawi and were detained.

Malaysia is a favored destination for the migrants from Myanmar as it is a Muslim-majority nation with a sizeable Rohingya diaspora.
Many travel on crowded, rickety boats from squalid camps near Bangladesh’s border, home to nearly a million Rohingya who fled Myanmar after a military offensive in 2017.
In the earlier incident, 60 Rohingya died on a boat crammed with hundreds of people stranded in the Bay of Bengal for more than two months, according to survivors.
That vessel was denied entry by Malaysia and Thailand and then headed back to Bangladesh where the migrants were picked up by the coast guard late Wednesday. About 400 people were rescued.
Activist group Fortify Rights said Rohingya had told them other ships were adrift at sea between Bangladesh and Malaysia, and urged regional governments to allow boats ashore.
“Sending an ill-equipped ship of refugees out to sea is unlawful and a death sentence,” said the group’s CEO Matthew Smith.
sr/axn


Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

Updated 04 July 2020

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

  • Young volunteers tackle tough terrain, pandemic myths in isolated northern region

JAKARTA: A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, told Arab News that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he told Arab News.

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he told Arab News.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.