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For decades, Indonesia's Aceh offered a safe haven to Rohingya refugees. Why has that suddenly changed?

Channel News Asia - December 17, 2023

Nivell Rayda, Lhokseumawe, Indonesia – For two weeks, Mr Mohammad Ershad, his wife and two sons were crammed inside the hull of a wooden fishing boat with 218 others.

To avoid detection by the authorities, the Rohingyas were told by people smugglers to stay below deck for the majority of their 1,800km journey across the treacherous Andaman Sea from Bangladesh to Indonesia.

They had to eat and sleep in dark, humid and crowded compartments that were normally used to store fish. Water occasionally seeped into the three-by-ten metre hull, Mr Ershad recounted, and the compartments reeked of exhaust fumes and fuel from the engine bay.

By the time the boat entered Indonesian waters, the boat's captain and crew were long gone and the boat was left at the mercy of the waves.

The refugees were weak and dehydrated, having eaten nothing for the last four days, Mr Ershad, 28, told CNA. Despite this, everyone sprang to life when the boat drifted onto the shores of Ujong Kareung village, in Indonesia's northernmost province Aceh at 10pm on Nov 21.

The refugees were so desperate to disembark that most left their possessions behind and the boat was tipping to one side, he said.

"We came to Indonesia because Indonesia has been very nice to Rohingyas," Mr Ershad said.

The refugees were expecting salvation and sympathy from the locals; what they got was rejection.

"They tried to take us back to the boat. They were going to tow the boat back to sea," said Mr Ershad, adding that there were shouting, scuffles and threats of violence by the villagers.

The refugees were eventually allowed to remain after the local government promised to relocate them from the village within 24 hours. At 6pm the following day, they were transported to a dilapidated building in the city of Lhokseumawe, 213km away from Ujong Kareung.

What has triggered the Acehnese's change in attitude towards Rohingya refugees?

Surge in arrivals since November

Since Nov 14, more than 1,600 Rohingyas including women and children as young as a year old have arrived in Aceh. The figure is more than double the refugees who arrived in the province in 2022, and the journey can be deadly. The BBC reported that at least one child died because of dehydration while at sea.

The latest batch, comprising 50 people, arrived on a boat on Dec 14 to East Aceh regency. One refugee told local media that there were originally 129 people on board but they had to switch to a smaller boat because the previous one broke down in the waters near Thailand. This means there are at least 79 more passengers en route to Indonesia.

Analysts say the sudden surge is linked to heightened tensions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted for decades. Another factor is the worsening living conditions in Bangladesh, where close to one million Rohingyas are currently seeking refuge.

The influx also had to do with the end of the monsoon season in the Bay of Bengal when the Andaman Sea is calmer. This year, the monsoon season began in June and ended in mid-October.

But the surge is taking a toll on Aceh's local population, who have been welcoming of the refugees for decades.

This is the first time there has been a wave of rejection of the Rohingyas in Aceh, Indonesia's closest point to both Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The backlash has caused worry that Indonesia will no longer be a safe haven for refugees and could follow the footsteps of neighbouring Malaysia and Thailand, which had been actively denying Rohingya refugees entry to their territories.

'We were living in darkness'

Some 500 refugees have since been relocated to a disused building belonging to the Lhokseumawe immigration office, while hundreds more are housed at an abandoned orphanage in Aceh's Pidie district. There are others living in tents at several locations across the province.

In Lhokseumawe, there can be as many as 15 people sharing a three-by-three metre room while the building's main hall is occupied by more than 100 refugees.

Every afternoon, a long queue of people wait to use the bathrooms as children play in an unpaved courtyard where the earth turns into mud after downpours.

But conditions at the Indonesian camps are still better than the ones in Bangladesh, said 25-year-old Imam Husein.

"Here, I feel safe," said Mr Imam, who came to Indonesia with his wife and two children last month. "In Bangladesh, there are gangs who ask for money. I prefer Indonesia over Bangladesh."

Mr Imam's family left Myanmar in 2017, as the country launched a brutal crackdown on the Rohingyas. "I saw people getting killed and houses burned down with my own eyes," he said.

His parents are still in Bangladesh because they cannot afford to pay the US$1,000 fee to go to Indonesia.

According to the United Nations (UN), tens of thousands of Rohingyas were killed from 2016 to 2017 during the military-led crackdown and over 700,000 were forced to flee to Bangladesh. Many countries labelled the crackdown a genocide.

The exodus led to the creation of some of the world's biggest refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar and Bashan Char island, which currently house 936,000 and 30,000 Rohingyas respectively.

Some refugees told CNA conditions in Bangladesh are growing more dire as the years go by.

"There are many fighting in Bangladesh... We didn't have any freedom... Rohingya people didn't have (access to) education," said 21-year-old Hamid Hussain, who came to Aceh last month with his parents and two siblings.

Mr Hamid said cases of theft, extortion and human trafficking are rampant at the Bangladeshi camps.

Refugees also have to deal with extreme weather conditions like Cyclone Mocha, which hit northern Myanmar and southern Bangladesh in May. The cyclone forced the evacuation of thousands of refugees and locals.

"I think many people were living in darkness in Bangladesh. Not just my family. Everyone was living in darkness in Bangladesh," Mr Hamid said, speaking figuratively.

'We can only help so much'

Since the refugees first came to Indonesia in the early 2000s, the Rohingyas have always been treated as fellow Muslims in need in Aceh, a province which adopted the Islamic Sharia in its bylaws.

"They gave us food, shelter, clothes, everything. They helped us reach shore and looked after our injuries. People were very nice," said Mr Alex Alomgir, who arrived in Aceh by boat in January along with 183 other Rohingyas.

But this attitude is slowly changing.

Before landing in Ulee Madon village in North Aceh regency on Nov 16, a boat carrying 249 refugees was twice turned back by locals in neighbouring Bireun regency.

In both instances, local fishermen prevented the boat from reaching the shorelines and tugged the boat back to open waters, refugees and locals said.

The people smuggler manning the boat had escaped, so the boat was at the mercy of the currents, which took them east to North Aceh regency.

Mr Saiful Fuadi, a customary leader which oversees 10 villages including Ulee Madon, said villagers were reluctant to take the refugees in.

"But they landed at night when people were sleeping. By morning, the beach was full of them," he said.

Mr Saiful said locals eventually agreed to provide the refugees food and dry clothes on the condition that the local government would swiftly relocate them.

"Out of compassion we still help by providing for their needs but they cannot stay here. We wouldn't be able to go to sea with them here. It would be uncomfortable for us," he said.

We sympathise with them. But we can't continuously help them. Not if they keep coming. We can only help so much."

Villagers in West Lapang village in Bireun regency felt the same way when 256 refugees landed on their shores on Nov 19.

"The government asked us if they can keep the refugees here," said village chief Muchtar who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

"We said, they can stay for four meals. We cannot afford to let them stay for longer... It is not that we don't welcome them. We are not able to accommodate them. We don't have a permanent shelter. And they will bother people trying to fish."

But not everyone in Aceh felt the same way. In Batee village, Pidie regency, the UN bodies tasked with handling the refugees were welcomed to set up tents to accommodate the 233 Rohingyas who arrived on Nov 15.

The refugees' presence attracted the attention of curious locals who flocked to the camp every afternoon to see the Rohingyas as well as the wooden boat on which they came, which is still anchored at a nearby beach.

"It's okay," said 17-year-old Abdul Rahman when asked how he felt about being an attraction to curious locals. "They are nice. They gave us food sometimes."

But Aris Munandar, a security guard manning the camp, said the welcome is slowly wearing off.

"There are people who are not pleased that their village is used as a refugee camp, especially now that they have been here for weeks," he said.

Government intervention needed

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention but has allowed refugees from Myanmar and other war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria to stay until the UN refugee agency UNHCR can find another country willing to accept them permanently.

Although Indonesia adopts the non-refoulement principle – meaning it will not deport refugees and asylum seekers back to their countries – as a non-signatory, it is not obliged to grant citizenship to any of the 12,000 refugees currently residing in the country.

The refugees are also barred from legally holding jobs in Indonesia because of their immigration status. This means their livelihoods depend solely on UNHCR as well as donations from other charitable organisations.

But human rights activists highlighted that Indonesia has the obligation to save lives and distressed boats because it is a signatory of the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"The responses shown by certain individuals to reject the disembarkation of hundreds of Rohingyas, force them to return to their non-seaworthy boats and cast them adrift out in the open sea are inhumane," said Mr Usman Hamid, the Indonesia director of rights group Amnesty International.

"The government should intervene so these incidents never happen again."

Indonesian leaders have signalled they will temporarily accommodate the refugees on humanitarian grounds while protecting national interests.

Mr Mahfud MD, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, said last Thursday (Dec 14) the government is inviting three provinces, Aceh, North Sumatra and Riau, to meet to decide on temporary shelter for the refugees.

"It should be noted that while we are upholding the value of humanity, we must not neglect our own national interests, given that our interests are related to the large population (of) our country," he said.

On Dec 11, Mr Mahfud had told reporters: "Many Indonesians are questioning why (Indonesia is helping the Rohingyas), saying: 'We are also hungry, we are also poor.' We will help (locals and refugees) equally. The government's job is to protect people's human rights. Ensure everyone is safe. Ensure that there is no casualty."

Earlier this month, Indonesian Vice President Ma'ruf Amin mooted the possibility of putting up the refugees on Galang island near Batam.

Meanwhile, Aceh acting governor Achmad Marzuki told reporters that rejection by the local population was "understandable".

"We perfectly understand people's situation, how uncomfortable they must feel if their plantations or backyard are occupied by 200 to 300 refugees who need access to all sorts of care and facilities," he said on Dec 11.

"The government's job is to figure out how soon we can come up with a new location."

Indonesia is also investigating how the refugees were smuggled into the country, said President Joko Widodo.

"The government of Indonesia will take stringent actions towards the people smugglers," he said this month.

Ultimately, officials say the international community must work together to address the root cause of the refugee crisis: ongoing violence in Myanmar.

"Indonesia will do all that it can to help so that the conflict in Myanmar can be quickly resolved and democracy restored," said Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Lalu Muhammad Iqbal on Dec 12.

Rohingya refugee Mr Ershad said he would love nothing more than to see peace in Myanmar.

"Myanmar is my home. When the killing of Rohingya people stops, when there is peace and stability in Myanmar, I will definitely return to Myanmar," he said. – CNA/ni

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/aceh-indonesia-rohingya-refugee-crisis-399126