On 11 May 2015, Acehnese fishermen rescued hundreds of dehydrated and emaciated people drifting in boats off the coast of the province. The men, women and children on board were Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Facing systematic persecution in Myanmar, many Rohingya had been driven into the arms of people smugglers, hoping to reach Malaysia with their help. After the discovery of mass graves in remote jungle camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border, police cracked down on smuggling networks, and the smugglers abandoned the Rohingya, leaving them drifting on boats in the Andaman Sea. Fearing that more boat people were on the way after the clamp-downs, the naval authorities of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia decided to prevent other boat people from disembarking. In several instances, they gave them food and water before pushing their fragile boats back out to sea.
This deadly ping-pong left hundreds of Rohingya stuck at sea for more than a week. Finally, after massive international pressure, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand reached a joint agreement. Indonesia and Malaysia pledged to take 7,000 boat people between them and allow the Rohingya to be processed in their respective territories, with the international community bearing all financial responsibilities. The offer for shelter might have appeared to be a magnanimous gesture at first glance but it was far less impressive in reality.
Indonesia and Malaysia offered temporary shelter only, insisting that the resettlement and repatriation process must be completed within a year. It was immediately clear this timeframe was unrealistic. In Indonesia, the Refugee Status Determination procedure typically takes between two and four years, and waiting for actual resettlement can take several more. None of the other asylum seekers who have come to Indonesia over the past two decades (the majority from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) have ever been subject to such a restrictive limit.
State-driven search and rescue operations might have come too late for some, but a total of three boats and 1,807 people came to shore in Aceh. About 1,000 self-identified as Rohingya, while the others said they were from Bangladesh. This is an important distinction, not only because the Rohingya and Bangladeshi people were housed separately, but also because the 642 people who said they were from Bangladesh were repatriated quite quickly.
It is possible that some of the returned people were, in fact, Rohingya, as Bangladesh has been home to displaced Rohingya for decades. Fortunately nobody was sent back to Myanmar. The government in Rangoon does not recognise Rohingya as citizens but claims that they are “illegal Bengali migrants”, despite the fact that Rohingya have lived in Rakhine State for centuries.
There are a number of important differences in the way Rohingya are treated compared to other asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. Like other asylum seekers and refugees, they have no right to work, no access to education and no chance of ever becoming Indonesian citizens or integrating into society. As a persecuted Southeast Asian Muslim minority, the Rohingya have seen unprecedented solidarity from Indonesian individuals and organisations. Food and clothes were sent to the camps, particularly around Muslim holidays, sometimes more than was needed. Unfortunately, these donations are now drying up.
Similarly, there was a far greater concern for the plight of the Rohingya among Indonesian civil society organisations, which had hitherto shown little concern for asylum seeker issues. But their limited experience and unfamiliarity with international standards of care for asylum seekers and refugees made the involvement of some of these organisations problematic. For example, although CSOs received plenty of donations, the quality of the temporary shelters they built was poor. Local authorities in Lhokseumawe also complained about interference by CSOs that not only undermined security arrangements but also conflicted with rights provisions. For example, in one camp, a CSO arranged marriages, including for underage girls, as it considered it inappropriate for unmarried men and women to be living together in the same camp.
Indonesia does not allow for local integration of refugees, so the Rohingya can only hope for resettlement. Limited resettlement capacity worldwide – less than 1 per cent of all refugees worldwide are resettled in a safe third country – suggests, however, their hopes may be misplaced. The Rohingya are at the bottom end of the “desirability scale” for refugees, as many have no formal education or are illiterate. Australia made clear in May 2015 that it would not take any Rohingya. So far, only three Rohingya from Aceh have been resettled in Canada.
So the Rohingya remain stuck in Indonesia. Lingering in camps with nothing to do, unable to earn a living, they also face increasing hostility from locals, who feel that the Rohingya have used up all their goodwill. With little chance of resettlement and no future in Indonesia, most Rohingya have absconded over the past few months, hoping to reach Malaysia. The only way to do so is – once again – to rely on smugglers who take them by boat across the Malacca Straits. At the end of January, only 275 Rohingya remained in all four camps in Aceh.
The government may get its wish. When the one-year deadline expires in a couple of months, the Rohingya may well have vanished entirely from Aceh.
Dr Antje Missbach will speak on “Asylum Seekers and the Australia-Indonesia Relationship” at the Melbourne Law School on 15 March at 5.30pm. At this seminar, Antje’s book, “Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia,” will be launched.