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Rohingya refugees facing a hostile reception in Aceh

New Mandala - December 4, 2023

Nino Viartasiwi & Antje Missbach – Every year when the monsoon season in Bangladesh ends, risky journeys of Rohingya refugees take off en route to Malaysia. Not all passengers who embark from the refugee camps near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border reach their destination alive. In November 2023, five boats with more than 1,100 emaciated refugees arrived in different places along the coast of Aceh in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.

On two occasions local villagers at the landing sites have pushed the boats back to sea instead of providing much-needed help to the men, women and children after their hazardous journeys. Footage captured by BBC Indonesia in Muara Batu, North Aceh district, shows hundreds of tired-looking Rohingya migrants sitting on the beach.

Villagers are handing them plastic bags of food while telling them to return to boats, shouting, and threatening them with beatings. Another video published by Tribun Aceh shows Rohingya migrants being physically dragged back to their boat. The villagers had taken instant noodles and other food items to the refugee boat, which the passengers then threw in the water, demanding instead to be allowed to come on land. In late November, students in Aceh took to the street to speak out against the reception of Rohingya, thereby also alleging the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for having conspiratorial motifs.

This behaviour stands in stark contrast to previous acts of kindness and hospitality extended to the Rohingya arriving in Acehnese waters in 2015 and 2020, which earned the locals international respect. According to Acehnese maritime customary law, fishermen are obligated to assist anybody in distress at sea. The ancient institution of Panglima Laot plays a crucial role in ensuring maritime safety and is built on reciprocity and mutuality. There is also the Acehnese tradition of peumulia jamee, honouring guests.

The recent hostile behaviour towards Rohingya was widely reported, with Indonesian media citing many disgruntled locals and, in the process, reinforcing negative stereotypes about the refugees. Some villagers complained about the lack of gratitude shown by previous Rohingya who had run away from the camps in Aceh where they were being hosted. Others pointed to the possible insults and intercultural misunderstandings if the Rohingya were to stay for long. Perhaps more crucially, the imprisonment of three Acehnese fishermen for people smuggling offences, who had rescued 99 Rohingya from drowning boat a year earlier, stirred up negative sentiments about these recently arrived refugees and towards those who facilitate their journeys.

Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the spokesperson of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, was quick to direct the blame for the arrival of the Rohingya to the smuggling networks "that are now abusing Indonesia's kindness and seeking financial gain from refugees without caring about the high risks they are exposing them to". Associating rescue at sea with the transnational crime of people smuggling is arguably a dangerous race to the bottom that may cost many innocent lives, as similar developments with rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean Sea have shown. The confiscation of rescue vessels and the arrest of rescuers limits the chances of survival for those at distress at sea.

The villagers' rejection of the recent arrivals and depiction of these events in the media are being used to support the Indonesian authorities' increasingly hostile position opposing the arrival of more Rohingya in Indonesia. A joint operation of local police, the navy, and the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) is now patrolling the coastal waters, supported by ordinary villagers and fishermen. Protecting borders is prioritised over saving lives.

This approach ignores the reasons for why Rohingya are risking their lives at sea in the first place. Rohingya who eventually land in Aceh start their hazardous journeys in Bangladesh, where close to a million people are currently languishing in squalid camps. The ethnic minority were forced to flee their home country Myanmar following brutal military crackdowns against them in August 2017, which many observers deem an act of genocide.

In 2019, Gambia filed a case in the International Court of Justice in The Hague (The Gambia v. Myanmar) with the support of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The case alleges that Myanmar's atrocities against the Rohingya violated various provisions of the Genocide Convention. The final verdict is expected in 2025.

Between 2012 and 2015, approximately 112,500 Rohingya travelled across the Andaman Sea with the help of smugglers. When regional authorities clamped down on smuggling networks in 2015, around 8,000 Rohingya were abandoned at sea by their smugglers for several weeks. The so-called 2015 Andaman Sea crisis was eventually resolved when Malaysia and Indonesia allowed the boats to disembark. Due to intensified border patrols in Bangladesh, the number of departing boats ceased briefly.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several boats tried to reach Malaysia, but at least 22 were pushed back. 2022 and 2023 saw a dramatic increase in the number of boats arriving in Indonesia and Malaysia, leaving the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and NGOs struggling to provide shelter to the refugees. The recent influx of Rohingya in Southeast Asia is also driven by the ration cuts in the refugees camps in Bangladesh. With food rations allocated at as little as US$0.27 per person per day, crime in the camps is unsurprisingly on the rise – and so are irregular departures across the sea.

Source: https://www.newmandala.org/rohingya-refugees-facing-a-hostile-reception-in-aceh