Authorities transport Rohingya asylum seekers from Sabang to the Acehnese mainland, November 2023 (Photo: Dinas Perhubungan Aceh on Facebook)

Rohingya refugees facing a hostile reception in Aceh

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 motives.

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.

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The latest arrivals in Indonesia have sparked old debates about its obligation toward refugees, as a non-signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The foreign ministry’s Lalu Muhamad Iqbal claims that on account of that status Indonesia “has no obligation to accommodate refugees”. However, as signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international laws, Indonesia is obliged to rescue people at distress at sea and bring them to the nearest place of safety. The UNHCR has reiterated its pleas for continued compassion and hospitality to support the disembarkation of additional boats that may be on the way.

Despite the disturbing scenes of rejection of refugees broadcast in the media, it is important to also stress that not all members of the local community reject the Rohingya. About 230 people have been taken to an unused plot of land by the residents of Kulam Village. Local authorities asserted that the community would safeguard the refugees and refrain from forcibly returning them to the ocean. However, humanitarian workers are facing pressure from various sides when carrying out their work with the Rohingya.

Given that the region has witnessed frequent arrivals of Rohingya for the last decade, the absence of proper refugee shelters highlights a longstanding problem in Aceh. Mukhtar Yusuf, a village chief, explained the logistical difficulties associated with hosting refugees for longer periods of time. If they remain at the local docks they can, for example, disturb the daily activities of local fishermen.

Despite some cautious criticism by local NGOs and human rights activists of the recent local rejections, it may also be indicative of fatigue among local solidarity networks. For the last ten years, the local population has been the initial responder taking responsibility for the stranded refugees at sea, including bringing them to shore, sometimes even against orders by the Indonesian military.

Ignorance of the suffering of stranded refugees at sea by the responsible Indonesian authorities shows a lack of governmental accountability. Presidential Regulation Number 125/2016 explicitly stipulates that the government has the authority to rescue foreign refugees who are stranded at sea. As an institution specifically assigned to carry out search and rescue activities, Basarnas is responsible for leading such activities, supported by the navy, police, ministry of transportation, maritime security agency (Bakamla), and other related government agencies.

However, rather than conducting search and rescue operations, the Indonesian navy and the maritime police have intensified patrols to detect foreign vessels in Indonesia’s territorial waters. Maritime police officer Iptu Zainurrusydi said that after detection “we are of course taking policies according to existing regulations”. While they have not admitted to conducting pushbacks, there are indications that Indonesia may be now be adopting the deterrence policies of neighbouring Malaysia and Thailand.

With the upcoming 2nd Global Refugee Forum to be held in Geneva on 13–15 December, it will be interesting to see how Indonesia explains its recent reluctance to rescue the Rohingya in distress at sea. It is reasonable to assume that instead of setting a good example, Indonesia will simply point to all the other signatory and non-signatory states around the world that see refugees as enemies to their sovereignty and behave in a similar way.

With the upcoming presidential and legislative elections in Indonesia in February 2024, there is also a risk that this recurring concern about refugees and national security could be exploited to generate a sense of threat and stir up fear and xenophobia.

Prabowo Subianto, one of the three presidential candidates, commented that while he is sympathetic toward the Rohingya plight, he is more concerned about the difficulties faced by the Acehnese hosting the refugees, and the potential impact on the Indonesian economy. Muhaimin Iskandar, running mate to Anies Baswedan, has vowed to pay attention to the plight of the Rohingya, though he did not specifically mention the refugees in Aceh. Other candidates have not yet commented on the issue.

The current lack of progressive ideas and humane solutions for the Rohingya has brought back previously mothballed ideas. One of the suggestions is to transfer the stranded Rohingya to a remote island in order keep them there until a more durable solution can be found, and to prevent social conflict with the locals during the presumably long wait.

Warehousing refugees on isolated islands is not an acceptable solution. This has already been evidenced by the Bangladesh experiment on the silt island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, where more than 30,000 Rohingya are currently stuck in an island jail. Not only do they fear floods and storms, but they lack decent water supplies, schools and health care and basic freedom.

Given that the “sailing season” for Rohingya has just started, there is a high possibility that in the coming weeks more people will be heading to Indonesia and Malaysia in search for safety and a better life. As long as they cannot return to Myanmar and live there safely, all neighbouring state need to refrain from pushbacks.

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