Updated at 8:35 p.m. ET on 2015-10-08
At least 345 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have fled refugee camps in Indonesia’s Aceh province and their whereabouts are unknown, officials and refugees confirmed to BenarNews.
The number of missing represents a third of the 1,010 Rohingyas who landed in Aceh in May, along with hundreds of Bangladeshi migrants, after being rescued from abandoned and stranded human-smuggling boats in the Strait of Malacca.
The missing refugees may have paid human traffickers to smuggle them to Malaysia so they could reunite with relatives there and find jobs, sources told BenarNews.
It is unclear when they vanished from camps scattered along the north coast of Indonesia’s western-most province.
According to humanitarian workers and government officials, the refugees fled in groups of two of to a dozen people at a time with the help of illegal migration agents.
Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim and relatively prosperous country, is a prime destination in Southeast Asia for Rohingyas, many of whom flee religious and ethnic persecution in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, in search of better employment and educational prospects abroad.
An anti-human trafficking crackdown by Thailand – which lies along transit routes for illegal migration from Myanmar and Bangladesh – led to a May maritime blockade on smugglers’ boats, which forced many to sail farther south in search of places to land.
“Many of my friends here have fled because they need to earn money so they can send it to their families back in Myanmar,” Sahidullah, a Rohingya Muslim cleric who is among refugees sheltering in Blang Ado, a village in North Aceh regency, told BenarNews.
Sahidullah, 22, said he had no plans to flee although one of his eight siblings now worked in Malaysia. He said he hoped the Indonesian government would give work permits to Muslim Rohingyas.
“We only eat and sleep here. There is no work to do from which we can make money, while many of the Rohingya need money to provide for their families they left behind in Myanmar,” he said Wednesday.
Albert Djalius, an immigration official in the town of Lhokseumawe, confirmed that 80 of the 315 refugees in Blang Ado had fled.
Rohingyas are also housed on the grounds of an old paper mill in Bayeun, in East Aceh, and in the city of Langsa. A large number fled Bayeun, where the refugees were living in tents along a major roadway.
“There were 342 Rohingya refugees, when they were stranded and saved. Now, there are only 184 refugees left. The rest have fled,” Ibrahim, a volunteer in charge of logistics at the Bayeun shelter, told BenarNews this week.
In Langsa, 107 refugees have fled, leaving 178 behind, said M. Daud, an official with the city’s social welfare agency.
According to Afrizal, an official from the Langsa immigration office, refugees are prohibited from working in Indonesia and they must obtain passes from security guards to leave the shelter’s premises.
Sources said they believed that Rohingya traffickers had infiltrated the camps and mixed in with the refugees.
“The refugees left at night, sneaking out of the side fence to the street where there was an agent with a car waiting for them. They were then transported to Medan,” Ibrahim said, referring to a city in neighboring North Sumatra province.
Security guards have caught some of the refugees who were trying to flee. Those who failed to get away said traffickers were charging 3,000 ringgit (U.S. $713) per person to help the Rohingyas escape, Ibrahim added.
In late September, all the remaining refugees in Blang Ado tried to leave their shelter after reports that four Rohingya women had been raped when they were caught on the night of Sept. 27 trying to flee the camp. However, police intercepted and stopped the exodus, according to local news reports.
Medical tests on three of the women showed no evidence of rape, police in Lhokseumawe said last week.
“Based on forensic medical examinations on the three refugees, we found no indication of rape or sexual assault,” A.K.B.P. Anang Triarsono, the local police chief, told BenarNews.
“Another Rohingya woman was not examined because she said at the beginning that she was not sexually harassed.”