Indonesia this week repatriated 200 Vietnamese fishermen who languished at immigration detention centers for months amid the coronavirus pandemic after local authorities confiscated their boats on suspicion of poaching in Indonesian waters, officials said Wednesday.
Another 216 fishermen from Vietnam will be sent home in October, according to a senior official at Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
The first batch of 200 was flown home when Hanoi sent a chartered plane to pick them up from Batam Island, where they were staying, said Adin Nurawaludin, director general of marine and fisheries resources monitoring at the ministry.
“As many as 200 people have been repatriated via Hang Nadim Airport, Batam on Monday on a Bamboo Airways … flight to Quang Ninh, Vietnam,” Adin told reporters in Jakarta.
“The plane was specially prepared by the Vietnamese government to take them home.”
Since the start of the pandemic, at least 500 Vietnamese fishermen have been stranded in Indonesia, some having languished for more than a year in shelters and detention centers run by the fisheries ministry and immigration authorities across the archipelago.
Indonesian officials had said earlier that pandemic-induced lockdowns had prevented the fishermen from being sent home more quickly, and that the Vietnamese government had made no attempt to arrange a repatriation flight.
“The reason they were only sent home yesterday is that during the pandemic, flights are scarce and countries are on lockdown,” Didik Agus, a spokesman for the fisheries ministry, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“We took the initiative to raise this issue diplomatically and Vietnam responded by carrying out this repatriation.”
Officials at the Vietnamese embassy in Jakarta did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, around 30 fishermen are still stranded at a detention center in Tanjung Pinang in Riau Islands province, due to lack of available seats on this week’s flight, or not having enough money to buy a ticket home, which costs around VND30 million (U.S. $1,320), RFA’s Vietnamese Service learned.
Danh Chien, 45, who has been detained in Tanjung Pinang since March 2020, said he could not buy a ticket on the recent flights home because his father in Vietnam could not manage to earn or borrow enough money to repatriate him.
“I am very sad and upset, and I am asking for help to find a way to return to Vietnam. Life is so miserable here, as I don’t have money to buy food and lack everything,” he told RFA.
“Fellow inmates who have money do give me food …. I am very grateful for that. I don’t receive any money from home.”
Vietnamese fishermen stranded in Indonesia had earlier complained about poor living conditions in detention centers, including not getting enough food or being given bad food.
Indonesia’s government dismissed the complaints.
“We feed them and there are quite a lot of them. No one is hungry. They can eat three to four times a day,” Pung Nugroho Saksono, a director at the fisheries ministry, told BenarNews in May.
In December 2020, detainees at Tanjung Pinang sent videos of themselves to RFA to highlight their poor living conditions.
An inmate, who asked to be identified as Mr. Bien, told RFA in May that the Vietnamese officials had visited the detention center before the lunar New Year in early February 2021, to collect information after the videos had been published.
In May, Vietnamese fishermen were also being held at facilities in Pangkal Pinang, off the east coast of Sumatra; in Pontianak, West Kalimantan; and in the Natuna Islands, according to Nugroho Aji, director of enforcement at the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
This year, Indonesia has seized 48 foreign boats suspected of engaging in illegal fishing – 25 from Vietnam, 17 from Malaysia, and six from the Philippines, according to the fisheries ministry.
Teuku Faizasyah, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Indonesian government continued to communicate with the Vietnamese authorities so that more Vietnamese could be repatriated.
“There are still plans for more repatriation in the future,” he told BenarNews.
Mohammad Abdi Suhufan, the coordinator of Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia, an NGO, welcomed the repatriation of the Vietnamese fishermen.
“They should have been sent home a long time ago, but it seems like Vietnam neglected them, and this has created a burden for Indonesia,” he told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.