Indonesian police arrest 11 Rohingya allegedly linked to smuggling ring

Pizaro Gozali Idrus and Dandy Koswaraputra
2023.12.15
Jakarta
Indonesian police arrest 11 Rohingya allegedly linked to smuggling ring A woman and her child look at a boat that carried Rohingya to the Laweueng beach in the Pidie district of Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 10, 2023.
Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP

Police in Indonesia’s Aceh province said they arrested 11 Rohingya suspected of being linked to a smuggling ring that profited from transporting refugees from Bangladesh to the Southeast Asian country.

The announcement on Thursday night came a little less than a week after the Indonesian president said his administration would go after trafficking networks suspected of smuggling in hundreds of Rohingya who have been arriving by sea in Aceh in recent weeks.

The refugees paid the smugglers between 3 million and 15 million rupiah (about U.S. $200 to $1,000) to be transported to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, Joko Krisdiyanto, a spokesman for the Aceh provincial police, said in a statement. 

“The smuggling operations were coordinated by security personnel at the refugee camps in Bangladesh, along with the captains of the boats,” he said, referring to the often rickety vessels that ferry the Rohingya to Southeast Asia, sometimes taking as long as two months.

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Police inspect Rohingya at a beach on Sabang island, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 2, 2023. [Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

Even if the Rohingya didn’t choose Indonesia as their destination, the smugglers often diverted the boats there because the waters of Thailand and Malaysia had tight security, Joko said. 

Sometimes Indonesians helped the refugees travel onward to Malaysia, he said. For the Rohingya, Indonesia is a gateway to Malaysia, which is a top destination in Southeast Asia for migrant workers from many South Asian and Southeast Asian nations.

Joko said that since 2015, police had arrested 42 people in 23 cases related to Rohingya smuggling. In Indonesia, the smuggling of people is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Videos of money exchanges

Police said they learned about the alleged smuggling operation after they arrested the 11 Rohingya on Wednesday. They were from a group of refugees who landed on Sunday near Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

The confiscated phones of two of the arrested Rohingya contained videos of money transactions investigators believe are evidence of human trafficking, said Fadillah Aditya Pratama, the director of criminal investigations at the Banda Aceh city police. 

Officials at the foreign ministry and the national police in Jakarta did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment. 

More than 1,500 Rohingya have arrived in Indonesia by boat since mid-November, with the latest arrival of 50 on Thursday on the coast of East Aceh.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have faced decades of repression and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and basic rights. 

About 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown in 2017, which the U.N. has said was carried out with “genocidal intent.”

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Rohingya children hold signs as they gather at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the fifth anniversary of their fleeing from neighboring Myanmar to escape a military crackdown in 2017, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Aug. 25, 2022. [Rafiqur Rahman/Reuters]

Human rights groups say the Rohingya had undertaken – and continue to undertake – perilous sea journeys to escape the deteriorating situation in Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021, as well as the worsening conditions in the refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh.

On Monday, Jakarta’s top diplomat, Retno Marsudi, urged the U.N. refugee agency to persuade third countries to resettle the Rohingya who have sought shelter in Indonesia, saying there needed to be a collective approach to the crisis.

Her plea to UNHCR came after some residents of Aceh rejected the Rohingya and refused to let them land, complaining they shouldn’t have to share already scant resources with the refugees. Government officials, too, said they were overwhelmed and Indonesia shouldn’t be bearing the burden alone.

Misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda on social media platforms such as X and TikTok, have gone viral, with the refugees accused as being colonizers.

Didn’t ‘leave their homes for fun’

On Friday, human rights activists warned that the focus on people smuggling could lead to more stigma against the Rohingya.

“We are worried that the media coverage of smuggling will be used to justify the rejection of Rohingya,” said Azharul Husna, coordinator of the Aceh chapter of the human rights group KontraS.

It is important to distinguish between the smugglers and the Rohingya, who are mostly women and children, said Teuku Zulkhairi, an expert on Rohingya affairs at the State Islamic University of Ar-Raniry in Banda Aceh.

“We hope that the security forces will crack down on the smugglers and bring them to justice,” he said. “But we also need to see the Rohingya refugees from a humanitarian perspective.”

“There are children, women, and the elderly among them. They did not leave their homes for fun.”

Uzair Thamrin in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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