Boats carrying 525 Rohingya land in Indonesia’s Aceh region

Pizaro Gozali Idrus and Uzair Thamrin
Jakarta and Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Boats carrying 525 Rohingya land in Indonesia’s Aceh region A Rohingya refugee rests with other new arrivals at a prayer hall in Kulee, Pidie regency, in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Nov. 19, 2023.

UPDATED at 8:04 p.m. ET on 2023-11-19

Up to 525 Rohingya were allowed to disembark in western Indonesia’s Aceh province when their three boats landed there on Sunday after weeks at sea, the latest in a wave of new Rohingya arrivals since Nov. 13, according to officials. 

Sunday’s landings in Aceh included about 250 people who were on a boat that had reached the province’s coast last Thursday but was pushed back to sea by villagers at two locations before it was finally allowed to come ashore after an urgent appeal by UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.

“The three ships that landed this morning were in three different locations, in Bireuen, Pidie and East Aceh, with around 500 people,” Mitra Salima Suryono, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Indonesia, told BenarNews. The landings brought to 866 the total number of Rohingya who have arrived in Aceh aboard five people-smuggling boats since last Monday. 

The three boats that landed on Sunday had spent between a month to two months on the open water after setting sail from Cox’s Bazar, in southeastern Bangladesh, officials said. The district is home to sprawling camps that house about 1 million stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees from the nearby Rakhine in Myanmar, officials said. 

Some of the 241 Rohingya who disembarked from the boat in Pidie regency (pictured) looked famished, sick and exhausted, according to a representative of a local fishermen’s association.

“Their physical conditions were unstable because they didn’t eat enough while at sea,” Marfian, the secretary in Pidie for Panglima Laot, the fishermen’s group, told BenarNews.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees rest at a prayer hall in Kulee, Aceh, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2023. [Khairu/AFP]

A police official in Bireuen confirmed that the boat with 249 people, which was pushed back to sea twice earlier, had landed in that regency along the northern coast near the western tip of Sumatra island. 

“We are looking after them and making sure everything goes well,” Second Inspector Marzuki, a spokesperson for the Bireuen police who goes by one name, told BenarNews.  

Residents of two villages along Aceh’s coast pushed back the boat on Thursday after two other boatloads of Rohingya had landed in the region on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14. Police at the time said that locals had been complaining about bad behavior shown by some among the 1,000-odd Rohingya who were already sheltering in Aceh. 

Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, both majority-Muslim countries, are popular destinations for Rohingya who decide to pay human smugglers money to embark on the often perilous and potentially deadly sea journey from Cox’s Bazar. 

“[T]he sailing season has started, and many refugees try to leave the camps in Bangladesh where they face precariousness, overcrowding, insecurity, lawlessness and now also food rations cuts,” Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based human rights group that advocates for rights for the stateless Rohingya people, told BenarNews in an email early Monday (Bangkok time). 

“We know of one more boat still at sea, maybe more. Surely more will be planning to leave.” 

Miftachuddin Cut Adek, deputy secretary-general of Panglima Laot, the fishermen's association, said that members of his group were always open to allowing in the Rohingya. 

"We accepted them for humanitarian reasons," he told BenarNews. “It's a pity that they were adrift in the sea when they reached the shoreline, but were rejected.”

Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International’s branch in Indonesia called it irresponsible for locals to have forced the Rohingya on that one boat to return to potential perils out on the open sea.

“This reflects a major decline in Indonesian civility. Even though the locals previously showed generosity and humanity towards Rohingya refugees,” Usman Hamid said in a statement issued before the boat with 249 people aboard was allowed to land.

“Indonesia has an obligation to help them. The policy of returning them to their country of origin clearly violates the non-refoulement principle, a basic pillar of the life of civilized nations," said Usman.

This picture taken on Nov. 18, 2023 in the Batee subdistrict of the Pidie region in Indonesia's Aceh province shows playing cards left on the deck of one of the two boats that carried Rohingya refugees to Batee and Laweung on Nov. 14 and Nov. 15, 2023. [Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

In January 2023, Jakarta called for region-wide cooperation to conduct rescue operations for Rohingya stranded at sea, so that Indonesia wouldn’t have to bear the burden of this task disproportionately.

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.

Human rights groups have said that the number of Rohingya leaving for third countries highlights the dire conditions at the refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh and the deteriorating situation in post-coup Myanmar.

Many Rohingya have grown desperate because they see no hope of being repatriated to Myanmar, which has been convulsed with violence following the February 2021 coup by the Burmese military, rights advocates and NGOs in the region have said.

The year 2022 was the deadliest since 2014 for Rohingya attempting such sea voyages, according to the United Nations. At least 348 individuals died or went missing at sea, UNHCR reported in January.

Imran Vittachi contributed to this report from Washington. It was updated to add comments by Chris Lewa.


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