Indonesia’s president promises crackdown on human smugglers amid backlash against Rohingya

Dandy Koswaraputra and Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Indonesia’s president promises crackdown on human smugglers amid backlash against Rohingya Rohingya wait in a line to be transported by bus from a beach to tents at the Balohan Ferry Port in Sabang island, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 3, 2023.
Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said Friday that his administration would go after trafficking networks suspected of smuggling in hundreds of Rohingya, who have mostly been arriving by sea in Aceh province in recent weeks. 

Jokowi, the leader of the world’s most populous majority-Muslim country, said he had received a report on the increasing number of Rohingya who had entered Aceh, a religiously conservative province at the northwestern tip of Sumatra island. 

“There is a strong suspicion of the involvement of a criminal network of human trafficking in this refugee flow,” Jokowi said in a video posted on YouTube.

“The Indonesian government will take firm action against the perpetrators,” he said, without elaborating.

The president, who is due to leave office in late 2024 – an election year – made the promise to take firm action against people smugglers, while his administration faces a growing backlash from Indonesians on social media. Many Indonesians are speaking out against allowing in more members of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya Muslim minority who have fled persecution in that country.   

In the video, Jokowi said the government would provide temporary humanitarian assistance to the refugees while prioritizing the interests of the local community. The government also plans to coordinate with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and other international organizations to address the issue, he said.

It was not immediately clear, however, whether the president’s statement marked a climbdown from an announcement made by one of his ministers earlier this week stating that the government planned to send Rohinya sheltering in Aceh back to Myanmar. 

Meanwhile, Faisal Rahman, the UNHCR’s Aceh representative, said the agency did not rule out the existence of a human trafficking network, but urged the government to continue offering humanitarian assistance to the refugees.

“Law enforcement and humanitarian assistance can go hand-in-hand,” he said. 

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President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo sings the national anthem during the send-off ceremony for Indonesia’s delegation to the 19th Asian Games at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Sept. 19, 2023. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

More than 1,300 Rohingya have arrived in Aceh in at least eight boats since November, causing resentment and hostility among some residents. 

Some Indonesians posting comments and content on social media have accused the Rohingya of being colonizers and demanded their deportation, authorities said. The controversy has been fueled by misinformation and propaganda on social media platforms such as X and TikTok, where fake accounts and anti-Rohingya posts have gone viral. 

The U.N. representative in Indonesia responded to posts from postings claiming to be the official UNHCR accounts by urging the public to be careful in processing information on the internet.

“Please follow the latest information from the official UNHCR account that seeks to find the best solution for all with the government of the Republic of Indonesia,” the U.N. agency said on its X account, formerly known as Twitter.

One of the most widely shared posts was a video by comedian Marshel Widianto on TikTok, who equated the Rohingya with invaders. 

He quoted a fake UNHCR account: “Hopefully the Rohingya people can be accepted in Indonesian society, and the government can give them houses, food and shelter, and make Indonesian ID cards.”

Since 2017, about 740,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and settled in Bangladesh refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar after the Burmese military carried out a brutal crackdown the U.N. called “ethnic cleansing.”

Since then, Rohingya in Myanmar and others living in the overcrowded Bangladesh camps have fallen prey to traffickers and smugglers who place 100 or more of them on rickety boats in an effort to reach other countries in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia has traditionally been a supporter of the Rohingya cause and urged Myanmar to give them rights and citizenship as well as end violence and persecution against them. 

Because Indonesia is not a signatory to the U.N’s 1951 Refugee Convention, Rohingya and other refugees have no access to formal education and jobs in the country.

UNHCR has said that about 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers were in Indonesia as of June, mostly from Afghanistan, Somalia, Myanmar and other countries. They face uncertain futures as prospects of being resettled in a third country are increasingly dim.

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Rohingya women wash their laundry at a port warehouse used as a temporary shelter in Sabang, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 8, 2023. [Riska Munawarah/Reuters]

On Tuesday, Mohammad Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said the government was considering deporting the refugees to Myanmar. Mahfud has been tasked by Jokowi to resolve the Rohingya refugee problem.

Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, meanwhile, suggested that the Rohingya be placed on Galang Island, in the Riau Islands province, where the government had previously sheltered refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s.

Trafficking arrests

In February, Indonesian police arrested a Myanmar man accused of leading a human smuggling ring that transported Rohingya from Aceh to Malaysia, local media reported. Police said the man confessed to working for a “big boss” in Malaysia who paid him to smuggle the refugees from Indonesia.

In November, police in Aceh said they arrested a man who allegedly tried to smuggle 36 Rohingya out of the country. The suspect told police that he was hired by another man to transport the refugees and was paid 3 million rupiah (U.S. $193).

Yon Machmudi, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia, said he understood the frustrations of some Acehnese people who felt burdened by the influx of Rohingya who have different cultures and customs.

“Initially, the Acehnese people voluntarily welcomed the refugees out of compassion, but as time went by, the situation became more difficult and caused some social problems,” he said.

He urged the government to intervene and find a solution in collaboration with other countries that share the same humanitarian concern for the Rohingya, who have been described by the U.N. as the world’s most persecuted minority.


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