Abandoned at sea: Indonesian Red Cross steps in to help migrants arriving from Myanmar and Bangladesh

In early May, 2015 everything changed in Meunasah Sagoe, a quiet community in North Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

In the space of a few days, 561 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh had landed on the local beach, many of who barely made it to shore having been cast adrift in the Andaman Sea by human traffickers. Local fishermen came to their rescue, towing the overcrowded and leaking vessels to land.

Those who survived the journey had lived on the overcrowded boats for three months with little food, water or shelter.

Ahmad Yani, who works at the North Aceh branch of the Indonesian Red Cross – locally known as PMI Palang Merah Indonesia – was deployed to assist the new arrivals.

“Most of them, including the children were in very bad shape. Their health problems ranged from dehydration to psychological trauma,” he recalls.

It was a couple of days before the government of Indonesia accommodated the migrants in shelters.

The first action taken by the Red Cross was to help the local authorities evacuate all of the migrants to a safer place in Kuala Cangkoi, a small port area, not far from Sagoe beach.

“We helped them because they need immediate humanitarian assistance regardless of their status as migrants,” said Ahmad Yani.

Soon after the migrants were relocated, a health centre was established by the Red Cross in collaboration with a local association of doctors to provide first aid and other health services. The Red Cross also operated a field kitchen, serving 561 meals, three times per day. 

Within a week, more than 1,800 migrants had arrived at different points along the coast of Eastern Sumatra. The local government established six shelters in four different areas. One of the biggest challenges was the language barrier. Using one or two migrants who spoke limited Malay – which is very close to Bahasa Indonesia – the Red Cross together with local authorities were able to carry out rapid assessment to identify the priority needs of the migrants. 

Health was the most urgent issue. To tackle the situation, PMI deployed three doctors, seven paramedics and 21 volunteers  to work with other organisations to provide medical services in the shelters.  People had also arrived with very few material possessions so the PMI also distributed clothes, blanket and baby kits. Once people had settled in the shelters, Red Cross teams began conducting health and hygiene promotion sessions including hand-washing and other advice on how to stay healthy in the shelters.

As part of their Restoring family links (RFL) activities, and with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), PMI launched a service called “I’m Alive”, where migrants could send a message to their family in their countries of origin.  35 forms from Bangladeshi migrants were collected and forwarded on to the Bangladesh Red Crescent for follow up. PMI also provided a service where migrants in the shelters could contact their families in Myanmar and Bangladesh by phone call.

Tackling migrant issues clearly could not be done without cooperation other key players. On 19 June 2015, PMI signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to strengthen collaboration between the two institutions in the humanitarian field, especially in delivering health services to migrants and helping reunite them with their families through RFL activities.

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Indonesian Red Cross steps in to help migrants arriving from Myanmar and Bangladesh