Special Feature: ‘Rescue at Sea’ Workshop in Aceh, Indonesia

In Aceh, Indonesia the Geutanyoe Foundation is promoting social cohesion between Rohingya refugees and the local fishermen who rescued them at sea, and facilitating training from experts to strengthen response preparedness.

In early April, Helen Brunt from the APRRN Secretariat spent a week in Aceh, Indonesia to experience first-hand the work being done on the ground with Rohingya refugees by our member organisation, the Geutanyoe Foundation.

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Photo credit: The Geutanyoe Foundation

Over a 10-day period in mid-May 2015, Acehnese fishermen rescued a total of 1,807 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants who were stranded at sea.

The swift response of the fishermen saved many lives and was the only effective humanitarian rescue in the region, at the height of the humanitarian crisis that unfolded when boats carrying thousands of men, women and children were abandoned by smugglers following the discovery of mass graves along the border between Thailand and Malaysia, and a crackdown on human trafficking by Thai and Malaysian authorities.

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Photo credit: APRRN

In recognition of the noble actions of the fishermen, the Geutanyoe Foundation convened a series of workshops from 2-7 April, to bring the Acehnese fishermen together with experts from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international medical organisation who are actively involved in rescue at the Mediterranean Sea.

Workshops were held in three locations across the east coast of Aceh province, and provided a rare opportunity for people from Aceh to recount their experiences of rescuing people in Achenese waters and their traditional knowledge and beliefs, with people from other places in the world.

Besides describing the rescues, the fishermen also shared how they were motivated by a deep humanitarian concern for people stranded at sea as well as their obligation under the centuries-old Acehnese customary law of the sea (Hukom Adat Laot) to help anyone in need of rescue at sea, regardless of their identity.

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Photo credit: APRRN

In the workshops, fishermen also had the opportunity to learn international standard techniques of rescue at sea which are currently being applied in rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

The fishermen learned about the identification of boats in distress, internationally recognised distress signals and communication methods, the use of rescue equipment, and how to protect themselves and increase health and safety practices during a rescue.

The week concluded with a final ‘training of trainers’ workshop on 7 April in Kuala Langsa in collaboration with the Municipal Government of Langsa and the Fishermen’s Association (Panglima Laot). In his opening remarks, the Vice Mayor of Langsa, Muzakir Hamid, highlighted the many risks that fishermen face in their daily activities at sea and in encountering boats in distress and expressed his gratitude for the opportunity for local people to increase their knowledge of safety practices at sea.

International Director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, Lilianne Fan, added that “with the rescue of thousands of stranded refugees and migrants in May 2015, Acehnese fishermen demonstrated not only that humanitarianism is a fundamental part of Aceh’s culture and Adat (customary law), but also that these principles can be applied effectively in life-saving rescue operations. It is important to combine this local knowledge with enhanced awareness of international standards and practices for rescue at sea.”

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Photo credit: The Geutanyoe Foundation

Whilst in Aceh, Helen also took the opportunity to meet some of the Rohingya refugees who were rescued by the local fisherman and have been living in temporary settlements in Aceh for the last year. She spent an afternoon listening to their stories, including those of one inspirational young mother who was pregnant during the months at sea, and whose daughter was born in Aceh in August 2015.

During another conversation, Ali, a 25-year-old Rohingya man who now speaks Indonesian and Achenese languages as well as English, spoke of his dreams to pursue an education as he hopes to become a teacher. Whilst in Aceh, Ali is giving informal English lessons to other Rohingya refugees as well as relaxing by flying his kite!

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Photo credit: APRRN

As they await a durable solution to their situation, the Rohingya are being welcomed by local Acehnese as their guests and the Guetanyoe Foundation team have been supporting the local population and Rohingya refugees in educational, cultural and ecological initiatives, including exploring possible livelihood and skills development opportunities, and organizing sports events and a photography exhibition.

Those attending the 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6), which will be held in Bangkok in September, can hear more about the on-going work of the Geutanyoe Foundation as they harness local and global knowledge to find sustainable solutions to some of the region’s most intractable humanitarian and social challenges.

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