Sanuar Begum was among more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who landed in the Indonesian province of Aceh last May, when local fishermen rescued boatloads of desperate and hungry passengers off smugglers’ vessels abandoned at sea.
A year later, only about 250 Rohingyas remain at four refugee camps scattered across the province. But although many of her fellow residents at the Bayeun camp in East Aceh Regency complain about being idle and only being able to “eat, sleep, and pray,” because their refugee status prevents them from applying for local jobs, Sanuar and some others say they are relatively content in their present situation.
“My husband says it is much better here because Acehnese are good people. They welcome us very well,” Sanuar, 20, told BenarNews.
Although she had the opportunity to try to leave Aceh and travel with two older sisters to Malaysia – a prime destination in Southeast Asia for Rohingyas – Sanuar said she turned down the offer because she was pregnant at the time. She has since given birth to a baby boy, Muhammad Nasrullah.
Sanuar and the others were part of a mass exodus by sea that saw more than 3,000 undocumented Rohingyas from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh come ashore during an irregular migration crisis that hit Southeast Asia in May 2015, and was precipitated by a Thai crackdown on human trafficking and a Thai maritime blockade on smugglers’ boats.
The residents at Bayeun were so-called “Green Boat” passengers rescued by Acehnese fishermen in the Strait of Malacca on May 20, 2015, after the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to allow their vessel to land.
As many as 434 passengers were rescued in that incident, including dozens of Bangladeshi migrants. Now some100 Rohingya refugees are left at the camp in Bayeun. Since May 2015, more than 800 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas have been repatriated in three batches, according to local officials.
The camp is housed in an abandoned paper mill. The refugees live there and are supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) through aid from Japan, the United States and European Union.
Many of the Rohingyas are children who have learned to speak Indonesian fluently. Some of the grown-up residents have married other inmates and dozens of babies have been born at the camps across Aceh.
“I wish to stay in Aceh forever. But if I was not allowed, I would move to Australia or the United States, according to the IOM. So my wife, five of our children and I can live in peace,” Jamal, a 37-year-old Rohinyga resident of the camp, told BenarNews.
Busy but jobless
But others say they are tired of remaining idle and want jobs so they can earn some money for their families back in Myanmar.
When asked what they had been doing for almost a year in Aceh, some replied in unison, “Here we only sleep, eat, sleep again and pray.”
Many of the other Rohingyas had left the camp in search of jobs in Malaysia, where the average wage for Rohingyas is 50 ringgit (U.S. $12.70) per month, Jamal said.
Like countless Rohingyas, Jamal escaped from Myanmar where members of the Muslim minority flee religious persecution and are treated as second-class citizens.
“I was a cook in a hotel. When the riots occurred, I was beaten up. They fired me after that and I lost my job,” he told Benar, referring to riots in his home state of Rakhine in 2012.
Jamal stands out from his fellow inmates at the camp. He keeps up his dignity by wearing a suit every day, along with a pair of donated shoes.
“I have to save my money. I bought their belongings provided by IOM and I sold them to a nearby market. I have five kids and a wife to feed,” he said.
To kill their boredom while being jobless, other residents spend their time at the camp planting vegetables and raising chickens.
Others take English and Arabic classes, as well as learn other skills.
Rohingyas learn English from textbooks at the camp in Bayeun, March 27, 2016. (Nurdin Hasan/BenarNews)
“We bought the vegetables planted in their garden, and feed them from their own garden. So they can earn a small amount of money. If they can harvest abundantly, we help them sell it in the market,” said Usman A. Rahman, a local government official who is in charge of the camp in Bayeun.
The local government has been working together with IOM and the U.N. refugee agency to train the camp’s residents in various skills, he said. For example, the women have been taking sewing classes.
“We hope that when someday they move to other countries, they have already mastered some skills to easily get jobs,” Usman told BenarNews, noting that the Indonesian government’s policy did not allow refugees to obtain jobs in the country.
‘All I can do now is pray’
Some of the Rohingyas were arrested in North Sumatra after escaping from the refugee camps and while trying to leave for Malaysia.
They were eventually returned to the camps in Aceh.
These include Asia Hatu, 23, and her son Muhammad Harun, 6.
“I wanted to leave because my husband is in Malaysia. But now I give up. I don’t want to run away anymore,” she told BenarNews. “All I can do now is pray. I just hope that one day there is a miracle that will reunite me with my husband.”