An Indonesian Hero Who Saved Drowning Rohingya Refugees

Rohingya migrants rescued by Indonesian fishermen last May.
Rohingya migrants rescued by Indonesian fishermen last May.
Rio Tuasikal

LANGSA â€" It was 8 p.m. and the sea was calm in the Strait of Malacca, at the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island. Ibrahim, a local fisherman, was pulling in his first catch of the night when he received news that a nearby boat was overcrowded and in trouble.

"We met another small fishing boat and they asked us to help," Ibrahim recalls. "The fisherman said there were more than 1,000 people that needed help, but his boat could only take around 20 to 30 people."

He immediately released his catch and headed towards Malaysia. Half an hour later, he witnessed a terrible scene that looked like something out of the movie Titanic.

"When we arrived, we put our lights on," he recalls. "We saw all these people floating in the water like ducks. Many of them were drowning, but we saved some of them. Their boat was half underwater, and passengers were being thrown into the water."

He describes the boat as small and so overcrowded that people on it couldn't move. "The passengers didn't jump off," he says. "They were thrown off it. The boat's engine was dead, and the boat was filling up with water."


His fishing boat was the fifth one on the scene, and his 30-person crew lowered their ropes and started saving the refugees, ultimately bringing 180 people to shore.

"Some of them were half naked, so we gave them our spare clothes," Ibrahim recalls. "We gave them what food and water we had. Some of them were bleeding, so we gave them onions and salt to put on their wounds."

With no languages in common, Ibrahim and the migrants used body language to communicate. It was almost dawn when his boat and other rescue ships arrived at the Kuala Langsa dock.

He then handed over the refugees to the Indonesian maritime police, who scolded him for his efforts. "The officer asked me why we didn't reject the boat people," he recalls. "If the ship was still in a good condition, we would have just given them food, but if they're drowning at sea we have to rescue them. We are humans. if someone is dying, we have to help them. There is no way that we could have done anything different. They needed our help."

Grateful survivors

Muhammad Amin, one of the rescued Rohingya refugees, says Ibrahim and the other fisherman who helped them are heroes. "If there were no Acehnese out at sea that day, everyone would have died," Amin says.

Another refugee, Hassan, says the fishermen have given them a new life. "I always pray for Indonesia," he says. "If your country hadn't saved us, maybe we would have died."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are still about 7,000 other refugees at sea. Ibrahim and the local fishermen have agreed to report illegal immigrants to the authorities if they see them.

“If the ship is still in good condition, we will not bring them to the coast," he says. "If they are in the ship, they don't need our help, but we saved refugees that were in trouble."

The Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees are now staying in temporary camps in Kuala Langsa, the harbor of Langsa city. The port is located right next to the fish unloading center where Ibrahim docks his boat. He says he and the other fisherman lost money on the night of the rescue.

"We didn't catch anything, and then we got home and we haven't been able to go out to sea again because we have a problem with the light," he says. And now it's Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims in which the faithful fast during the daytime. "Everything is going wrong."

But when he visits the refugee camp, he says he knows he did the right thing. A refugee passes by and thanks him again.

"We have a hard life, but their problems are much greater than ours," Ibrahim says. "I want to see the government look after them for a year. They have never begged us for food, so as long as the government is looking after them it's not a problem having them here.

"We should never lose our humanity."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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