Newly-arrived Rohingya refugees rest at a local fishermen's hall in Lapang Barat, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, on November 20. (AFP)

After hellish boat journeys, Rohingya refugees not welcome in Indonesia


As a rickety wooden boat carrying Rohingya refugees approached the shores of western Indonesia, several desperate men swam ashore to plead that the vessel be allowed to land after weeks at sea.

But the calls of the men – some of whom collapsed to the sand in exhaustion – fell on deaf ears.

Local communities twice prevented the vessel packed with 256 Rohingya, heavily persecuted in Myanmar, from landing before it finally reached the shore on Sunday.

“I felt sad, because they are humans. But what can we do?” said 53-year-old Acehnese fisherman Mr Aswadi, who like many Indonesians has one name.

Roughly 800 Rohingya have arrived in Indonesia’s Aceh province in at least five vessels over the past week.

More than a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the 1990s, most in the wake of a 2017 military crackdown that is now subject to a United Nations genocide investigation.

The bulk of them have settled in camps in Bangladesh.

But many have for years also sought to travel more than 4,000 kilometres to Malaysia, fuelling a multi-million dollar human-smuggling operation that often involves stopovers in Indonesia.

More than 100,000 Rohingya live in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The latest wave of arrivals coincides with the end of the stormy season in the region, allowing boats to set sail from Bangladesh.


Although the refugees on the refused boat were eventually allowed to land, their status in Aceh is far from assured, and locals say they could still force the newcomers back to sea.

Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, have long been sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslim refugees.

But some say their patience has been tested, claiming Rohingya consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.

There are also fears about keeping track of the new arrivals, who have sometimes run away from shelters to be smuggled to more affluent Malaysia.

Some Rohingya have been accused of working for the smuggling networks ferrying refugees to Malaysia, further heightening tensions with the local Acehnese.

“It’s not that we don’t care about humanity, but these people sometimes run away. We fear bad things will happen,” said Mr Rahmat Kartolo, a village chief in northern Aceh.

Some in the Aceh fishing community said they thought they were helping the refugees by setting them back to sea.

“Let them sail to a safe place. This place is not good. There is no food,” said 61-year-old Mr Nurlelawati, who also goes by one name.

“We want to help but we can’t.”

Locals brought the Rohingya rice, noodles and water in the first village where they attempted to land.

But residents turned the refugees back because they have “caused disturbances” before, said village head Mr Mukhtaruddin, 55.

“Number one, there is no place. Number two, because of the Rohingyas’ behaviour,” he said.

Sending the refugees back to sea can be a death sentence.

Nearly 200 Rohingya died or went missing last year while attempting hazardous sea crossings, UNHCR estimated.

‘Everyone cried’

Before the latest wave of arrivals, Indonesia hosted only around 1,000 Rohingyas, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Aid agencies have appealed to Jakarta to accept more, but Indonesia is not a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, complaining that neighbouring countries have shut their doors.

Some Rohingya who have settled report being welcomed by locals.

“We’re happy here. The Acehnese at the time helped with food, clothes,” said Mr Hasimullah, a father-of-two, who arrived in December last year.

Hasimullah was a farmer in Myanmar but was forced to flee to Bangladesh.

“We always experienced violence from Buddhists. Shot, killed, our houses burned. That’s why we ran away,” the 39-year-old said.

UNHCR has just six temporary shelters around Aceh to handle arrivals.

“We’re really hopeful that in the name of humanity, the people… could be given protection,” said UNHCR official Mr Faisal Rahman.

Even some of those who thought they were doing the refugees a favour by turning them away said they felt a twinge of guilt.

“There were people who were sick, elderly. Those little kids at sea. Everyone cried seeing them leave. I didn’t know what to say,” said Nurlelawati.

“Those people asked for our help.”

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