200 Rohingya refugees land in Indonesia, weekly arrivals pass 1,000

Rohingya women refugees await a vehicle as Indonesian authorities relocate them to an immigration building, in Lapang Barat village, Bireuen, Aceh province on 21 November, 2023AFP

Around 200 Rohingya refugees arrived in Indonesia’s westernmost province by sea overnight, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday, taking the total arrivals in the last week to more than 1,000 members of the persecuted Myanmar minority.

Thousands of the mostly Muslim Rohingya risk their lives each year on long and expensive sea journeys, often in flimsy boats, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

The latest group, which included men, women and children, landed in the small city of Sabang in Aceh Province at the tip of northern Sumatra at around 11 pm local time (1600 GMT) on Tuesday.

“The mayor, he said 200. He informed us about the disembarkation. The team will depart to Sabang early tomorrow morning,” United Nations refugee agency protection associate Faisal Rahman told AFP.

Members of the local community said the number could be higher, with estimates as high as 360 refugees landing, said Rahman.

Locals in Aceh last week turned away several boat arrivals from Bangladesh, saying they did not have the resources to accept the desperate refugees who in most cases have spent weeks at sea.

Images and footage seen by AFP showed the latest arrivals sitting in rows on a beach in Aceh’s Sabang instead of being taken to shelter.

Security forces and locals could be seen standing around the large group.
With the latest arrivals, nearly 1,100 refugees have landed in Aceh in the last week alone after more than 800 earlier landed on five boats, according to local officials.

UNHCR estimates more than 2,000 Rohingya attempted the risky journey to other Southeast Asian countries in the whole of 2022.

‘Rejection virus’

Rahman said the UNHCR team was trying to get to Sabang city as soon as possible to ensure the latest arrivals were receiving adequate treatment.

He said the agency had appealed to Sabang Mayor Reza Fahlevi to find the refugees safe shelter.

“The situation in the field now is not good. The rejection virus has been spread to all people,” he said.

“There is a big chance that they will move the community to push them back to the sea, but let’s hope that is not happening.”

More than a million from the ethnic group have fled Myanmar since the 1990s, most in the wake of a 2017 military crackdown that is now subject to a UN genocide investigation.

The bulk of them have settled in camps in Bangladesh.

On Wednesday a group of 256 Rohingya arrivals were given a reprieve when Indonesia granted them three months temporary shelter after locals threatened to turn them back to sea for the third time.

“The security of the refugees during temporary stay is the government’s responsibility by coordinating with the local police,” the national immigration office said in a statement.

The refugees were being moved on Tuesday evening and an AFP journalist saw trucks packed full of Rohingya men, women and children setting off for the new shelter.

Ann Maymann, representative of the UN refugee agency in Indonesia, told AFP the decision was “better... than having the refugees stay at a beach” with no security.

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

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

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, complaining that neighbouring countries have shut their doors.