Villagers in Indonesia’s Aceh province turn away boat carrying 200-plus Rohingya

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Villagers in Indonesia’s Aceh province turn away boat carrying 200-plus Rohingya Rohingya refugees react after reaching the beach by swimming as others are stranded on a boat after villagers decided not to allow them to land but gave them water and food in Bireuen district, Aceh province, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2023.
[Amanda Jufrian/AFP]

More than 200 Rohingya reached Indonesia’s Aceh province in a boat on Thursday, bringing the number of new arrivals this week to nearly 600, but villagers in separate locations forced the latest batch to return to sea, officials said.

The foreign ministry said people smugglers had exploited Indonesia’s generosity over the years in allowing in members of the stateless and persecuted minority group from Myanmar, while police said that locals were complaining about bad behavior by some among the 1,000-odd Rohingya sheltering in Aceh.

The wooden boat, which had been adrift for several days, first made its appearance on Thursday near the shore of Bireuen district, where police and the military tried to persuade villagers to let the refugees land on humanitarian grounds, said a spokesman for the Bireuen police.

But the villagers refused, saying they had unpleasant experiences with Rohingya who arrived on previous occasions and had been “troublesome,” said spokesman Marzuki, who goes by one name.

“We negotiated, but the locals refused to accept them,” the police official told BenarNews.

The police and the military have the power to override the locals, but Marzuki didn’t say why officials did not use that authority.

Jolly Ronny Mamarimbing, an intelligence officer for the Bireuen police, said the Rohingya were given food and drinks, and five of them who appeared very unwell were allowed to disembark and stay on in the village.

The boat then left and attempted to dock at Lhokseumawe, in northern Aceh, but was met with similar resistance from locals there, said Salman Alfarisi, a local police spokesman.

“They were going to [set] sail again, but their boat had engine trouble,” he said.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees are stranded on a boat as locals decide not to allow them to land in Bireuen district, Aceh province, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2023. [Amanda Jufrian/AFP]

This latest group of Rohingya followed the more than 400 others who arrived in Aceh by sea on Monday and Tuesday. The Aceh police and the local fishing community said they provided food, water, medical care and temporary shelter to the people who disembarked from the first two boats.

According to fishermen, Rohingya on those boats had sailed from the refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh. One of the refugees on the boat that was turned away on Thursday, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that its passengers had also left Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district near the Myanmar border, where the crowded camps are located. 

The camps host some 1 million Rohingya, nearly 740,000 of whom escaped a military crackdown in 2017, which the U.N. later described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” A Muslim minority, the Rohingya have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, has a history of welcoming Rohingya, who are considered one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. 

In 2015, Indonesia allowed thousands of Rohingya to disembark on its shores, along with migrants from Bangladesh, after they were stranded at sea for months.

Indonesia has no legal or practical obligation to host refugees, nor can it offer them a permanent solution, because it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, said Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry.

“Ironically, many countries that are parties to the convention have closed their doors and even implemented push-back policies against the refugees,” he said in a statement Thursday.

“Indonesia’s kindness in providing temporary shelter has been exploited by people smugglers who seek financial gain from the refugees without caring about the high risk they face, especially vulnerable groups such as women and children,” he said.

UNHCR ready to assist

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) urged the Indonesian government to keep its borders open to refugees.

“UNHCR is ready to assist the government, the authorities and the community in carrying out efforts to save the lives of refugees,” Mitra Salima, spokeswoman for the agency in Indonesia, told BenarNews.

“But we hope they will still provide assistance, considering there are many vulnerable women and children.”

In January, Jakarta called for regional cooperation to conduct rescue operations for Rohingya stranded at sea, so that Indonesia wouldn’t have to disproportionately bear the burden of this task. 

Indonesia does not grant asylum or legal status to refugees. 

Refugees who arrive in Indonesia are usually confined to temporary shelters or detention centers, and face an uncertain future, as they have no access to formal education and jobs.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have said that the numbers of Rohingya leaving for third countries further highlight the dire conditions at the Cox’s Bazar camps and the deteriorating situation in Myanmar after the February 2021 military coup.

Many Rohingya have grown desperate because they see no hope of being repatriated to Myanmar, which is convulsed with violence following the coup, human rights advocates and NGOs in the region have said. 

In Bangladesh, the refugees cannot work or properly educate their children.

To flee what feels like a hopeless situation, many undertake perilous journeys by sea, often on ramshackle boats, so they can lead a better life in one of the Southeast Asian nations, where they can access schools and jobs. 

Last year was the deadliest since 2014 for Rohingya attempting such sea voyages. At least 348 individuals died or went missing at sea, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.


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