With the help of Acehnese fishermen, about 1,000 Rohingya asylum seekers arrived on the beaches of North Aceh in April 2015. Indonesia agreed to provide temporary shelter but stressed that the Rohingya would need to be resettled within a year. Last year, I travelled to Aceh to conduct a short research project examining the needs of the Rohingya in these shelters, particularly the needs of women. A fundamental problem with the management of asylum seekers and displaced people is the uniform approach taken – too often governments fail to account for the different needs of male, female and child asylum seekers.
Only later did I find out that the Rohingya weren’t just in Aceh. They could be found in almost all of Indonesia’s immigration detention centres, from Jakarta to East Nusa Tenggara. In Makassar, for example, there were about 400. They had arrived on nearby islands in 2011 and were being kept in a number of safe houses in the city. Only one or two arrived alone, most were families.
Even though Indonesia has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention and is therefore, in theory, not obliged to provide protection for asylum seekers, geographic realities mean that, like it or not, the problem is not going to go away. Conflict in the Middle East and Asia and the ongoing desirability of Australia as a destination country will ensure this is the case.
Rohingya asylum seekers face multiple and severe violations of their rights. The most basic violation is that they are denied citizenship status. Despite living in Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state for centuries, the Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens, and they have no civil or political rights.
The Rohingya are generally considered to be Bengali Muslims who began settling in the area now known as Rakhine state before British rule. For the Rohingya, Myanmar is their home – their ancestors have lived there for generations. It is true that some Rohingya arrived in the mid-twentieth century, and continue to have familial ties with people in Bangladesh. But that is no reason to erase them from Myanmar.
Organisations like Human Rights Watch have found clear evidence of ethnic cleansing conducted by Myanmar authorities and local ethnic groups. The Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes, losing their sense of safety and security, their connections to friends and families, and sources of income. In all conflicts, men are considered the primary actors but Rohingya women bear even greater costs. They are second-class citizens in their own groups and often face gender-based violence. They are victims of discrimination because of both their ethnicity and gender.
But the most egregious crime against the Rohingya is the collective indifference of the global community to their plight. It’s true that international institutions dealing with asylum seekers and refugees are stretched thin. But I got the impression the Rohingya barely registered on their radars.
There are a number of reasons that the Rohingya asylum seekers are not considered a priority by the international community. They are poor, many are illiterate, and there are no more than a few hundred thousand. Their numbers are dwarfed by the millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Refugee politics is like politics anywhere else. As long as the Rohingya have a limited capacity to advocate for their cause, they won’t get as much attention as asylum seekers with more powerful voices.
More than a year after the Rohingya landed in Aceh, few remain. The New York Times recently reported that only 46 refugees were accepted in the United States and Canada after the 2015 refugee crisis. With hopes of resettlement so slim, many have been driven back into the arms of people smugglers. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 723 of the 999 Rohingya who landed in Aceh last year have made it to Malaysia, where many Rohingya asylum seekers have found work.
The Rohingya don’t have ambitious dreams. They simply want to live a calm life, send their children to school and find a source of income. “If our homes were safe, why would we risk our children’s lives at sea?” said Muhammad Alam, one of the Rohingya asylum seekers I spoke to in Makassar. They are sick of being victims of conflict and living without certainty in a country that rejects their existence.
This makes it all the more surprising that a number of them have revised their dreams about their destination country. Most of the Rohingya refugees I spoke to in Makassar still hoped to be accepted in Australia, Europe or Canada. But when I asked the same question to Rohingya in Aceh, the result was quite different. More than a few of them – even women – expressed a desire to travel to Syria. Their logic was simple but understandable. They are risking their lives for the hope of one day being accepted in a western country that might be able to offer them the better life they seek. With this seemingly out of reach, why not risk their lives to establish a country that could one day fulfil their needs – a promised land, created to uphold the law of God. This is what the see Islamic State as offering. They have already tried to fight for their lives with civilised means, but the neglect of the global community now seems to have driven them to take a more barbaric route.
Lies Marcoes has recently released a book on her research in Aceh, Berlayar Tanpa Berlabuh: Perempuan Pengungsi Rohingya di Aceh dan Makassar [Sailing Without Docking: Female Rohingya Asylum Seekers in Aceh and Makassar], published by Rumah Kitab.