A screengrab from a video by the New York Times shows a boat of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea.
A screengrab from a video by the New York Times shows a boat of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea.

As news spread of the stranded refugees and migrants adrift in the Andaman sea, the the government’s official response was to turn away the boats and wait for a meeting between different ASEAN nations to resolve the crisis. However, knowing that people on the boats were starving and thirsty after being at sea for months, Malaysians decided to take matters into their own hands.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir was one of the first activists to suggest supplying food and water independently of the government. On her Facebook page, she wrote that Malaysia should first and foremost deal with the refugees on boat before dealing with Myanmar, especially since we are the current chairman of ASEAN. “They should get pregnant women, children, the elderly and the sick off those boats and get them treated by medical personnel.”

Her Facebook campaign soon garnered hundreds of supportive comments and offers of help. Since then, other groups of caring and concerned Malaysians have come together to collect and provide relief aid for the refugees. Despite the strict regulations imposed by the authorities, these groups are going out of their way to reach out to these refugees, whether on land or at sea.

These groups include UMNO Youth, which passed the aid to the Royal Malaysian Navy in Langkawi on 16 May. According to the UMNO Youth deputy chief, Khairul Azwan Harun, the aid consisted of mostly food and water which they collected through collaborations with other NGOs.

Besides that, Refuge for Refugees also announced on its Facebook page that they were collecting essential items such as ready-to-eat food and water to be sent to those who are stranded at sea. They also accepted monetary donations for their teams to purchase the items in bulk.The collection began on the 15 May and ended on 18 May, as they are now focusing on distributing the collected items.

Read this next: 7 things to know about the Rohingya people

Social activist Syed Azmi is working with rakyat4rakyat and Food Aid Foundation to hold a donation drive for the refugees. They accept life-jackets in various sizes which can either be dropped off at Harley’s Burger, TTDI. Anyone who would like to contribute in providing food and water should do so through money donations. According to Syed Azmi, in the event that logistics become an unmanageable issue, the funds will be chanelled to refugee centers and refugee schools in Malaysia.

After their success in collecting donations for the flood victims, Syed Azmi and team are now providing aid relief to the Rohingyas.
After their success in collecting donations for the flood victims, Syed Azmi and team are now providing aid relief to the Rohingyas.

Besides donation drives for the essential items, non-profit organization Lawyers for Liberty are offering free legal aid and representation for activists who get into trouble with authorities at sea for trying to help the refugees and migrants. This was first set forth through a series of tweets by Lawyers for Liberty’s executive director, Eric Paulsen and was later announced on the official Twitter page. In one of his tweets, Paulsen urged activists to keep helping despite the challenges and restrictions. “Please do your best to help the Rohingya stranded at sea. Be careful but have no fear. Your cause is right,” he wrote.

Update: As of 20 May, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to allow the boats to land in their territories and to provide temporary shelter to those on board.

Dhabitah Zainal

Read this next: 7 things to know about the Rohingya people

Rohingya refugees