Over 300 Rohingya refugees stranded on Indonesian beaches

By AFP
December 11, 2023

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia: More than 300 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, were stranded on the coast of western Indonesia Sunday after being adrift at sea for weeks, the latest in the biggest wave of arrivals since 2015.

A group of 180 refugees from the persecuted Myanmar minority arrived by boat at 3:00 am local time (2000 GMT Saturday) on a beach in the Pidie regency of Aceh province.

Newly-arrived Rohingya refugees gather and rest at a beach in Laweueng, Pidie district in Indonesia's Aceh province on December 10, 2023. — AFP

Another boat carrying 135 refugees landed in neighbouring Aceh Besar regency hours later after being adrift at sea for more than a month.

The mostly Muslim Rohingya were the target of a 2017 crackdown by Myanmar’s military that is the subject of a UN genocide probe.

Around a million have fled to Bangladesh, and from there thousands risk their lives each year on long and expensive sea journeys to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

“We had been in the sea for almost one month and 15 days. [...] We left on November 1st,” 24-year-old refugee Muhammad Shohibul Islam said.

The refugees gathered on a plantation next to the shore, where they drank water given to them by locals. Some lay on the ground, trying to rest after their journey.

Police found stacks of United Nations refugee cards in a cardboard box brought by the refugees, an AFP journalist saw.

“We noticed that some of these refugees have refugee cards. So, let them be re-registered first by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration [before we act further],” local police chief Rolly Yuiza Away said by telephone.

The authorities kept the refugees on the shore where they landed, with mothers cradling their children, some of whom were naked, in their arms.

The local government in Pidie said earlier it would not take responsibility for providing the refugees with tents, or other basic needs.

They said they would not “bear any expenses” and that no shelters were available.

Local authorities and residents have been rejecting the Rohingya, threatening to push them back to sea since more than 1,000 arrived last month.

On Wednesday, about 150 protesters in Sabang Island in Aceh clashed with police as they called for the Rohingya refugees to be relocated.

“We continue to explain the situation to the people and ensure that they will not be burdened with the handling of refugees,” said United Nations refugee agency protection associate Faisal Rahman.

He acknowledged that designated shelters were over capacity but said the agency and the Indonesian government were trying to find a place for the refugees.

“The government is working to provide shelter as the number of refugees arriving is very high,” Rahman said.

President Joko Widodo said Friday that temporary relief would be provided for refugees “with a priority on the interests of the local community”.

He accused a human trafficking network of being behind the rising number of Rohingya refugees reaching his country by boat, vowing to take strict action against the perpetrators.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar.

But neighbouring countries have also shut their doors, leaving the Rohingya with few other options.

Rohingya refugees among the recent arrivals in Aceh said they fled escalating brutality in the camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, which hold more than one million people and where gangs regularly abduct and torture residents for ransom.