Aceh has been a common arrival point for Rohingya refugees since 2015. Photo by Ampelsa for Antara.

Aceh has recently attracted media attention due to the local community’s resistance to the arrival of Rohingya refugees in the area. A video circulating on social media shows their disapproval and even accuses the UNHCR of inciting the Rohingya presence in Aceh.

This sudden change has left humanitarian observers confused, given Aceh welcomed Rohingya refugees with such open arms in 2015 – and won international praise for doing.

This raises the question, why did the Acehnese community go from welcoming hosts to hostile opponents of refugees?

Local actors feeling the pressure

The change in the attitudes of Acehnese people towards refugees needs to be seen as a consequence of the strain on local actors.

Aceh originally gained international attention in 2015 for its handling of Rohingya refugees, with stories of local heroism making it a popular transit destination for refugees. However, much has changed since then. Humanitarian aid has decreased and religious organisations are unable to attract the same level of donations, leaving a critical gap in support for both refugees and host communities.

The national government is intent on hosting refugees in Aceh but has not allocated sufficient funding to support them. Local governments cannot reallocate their own budgets to help refugees because the local communities oppose this. Regional leaders are politically wedged.

In addition, the absence of clear policy guidance on how to manage refugees places a strain on humanitarian agencies and local communities, hindering their ability to respond.  Local NGOs in Aceh have expressed concerns about the increasing burden placed on the local government by the recent influx of refugees, especially since 2020.

Despite the enactment of Presidential Regulation on the Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Indonesia 125/2016, which sought to better define Indonesia’s responsibilities for asylum seekers, the system still faces significant obstacles, such as housing shortages and community opposition. For example, a number of areas in North Aceh have become key arrival points for refugees, creating a shortage of shelter for new arrivals. Despite the assistance of institutions – such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – in managing refugees, there are still significant costs borne by the local government.

In addition to budget constraints, the people smuggling business – often involving local people – has remained a significant issue since the arrival of refugees in 2015. The participation of locals in the trade continues to undermine the trust of the local population in authorities, refugees and fellow citizens. In 2021, for example, one refugee smuggling case involving four North Aceh fishermen garnered significant media attention. The fishermen received payment from a smuggler in Medan to relocate refugees from a camp in North Aceh to a temporary shelter in Medan.

This incident has had an impact on the Acehnese people’s perceptions of the arrival of refugees – some fear their efforts to support refugees might be seen by authorities as supporting a human trafficking syndicate.

The victims are now being portrayed as threats

Attitudes towards Rohingya refugees have also become less hospitable due to a change in the public discourse.

The Acehnese community’s acceptance of Rohingya refugees in the past was heavily influenced by an earlier narrative that represented them as Muslim victims of an unjust conflict perpetuated by non-Muslims in Myanmar. This narrative created empathy and a sense of human solidarity among local communities because Aceh had also experienced prolonged conflict.

Additionally, earlier narratives presented the reception of foreign guests as an honour, rather than a burden, galvanising public support for the Rohingyas. It was on this basis that the people of Aceh offered them refuge.

However, the narrative has now flipped. The Acehnese people no longer view the refugees as welcome guests and the old narrative – of Rohingyan refugees being victims of a religious conflict and crimes supported by the Myanmar government – has faded away.

Social media also plays a key role in shaping and circulating current perceptions, especially the coverage of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. In Malaysia, the presence of Rohingya refugees is causing two main issues. First, there has been an increase in criminal incidents, such as assaults, within refugee camps.

Second, there is a perceived economic threat due to the number of refugees working informal jobs. Local online media in Aceh are sharing news about these issues, suggesting that accepting Rohingya refugees could lead to similar problems in their region.

Disinformation in social media is another key challenge. There have been suggestions spread by random accounts on Facebook and Instagram that Rohingya refugees are motivated by the acquisition of land – and this has triggered negative perceptions. The users who disseminate this fake news harness outrage over the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict to  draw unfair comparisons with illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Inaction threatens international reputation

To address these challenges, the Indonesian government needs to reevaluate its approach to refugee management. Considering the notable shift in Acehnese attitudes towards refugees, failure to act could quickly undermine the stability of local communities, and with it, Indonesia’s international reputation.  The Indonesian government’s people smuggling and refugee management failures have already created public unease about the arrival of Rohingya refugees which is now escalating into anger and open hostility.

Indonesia has consistently accepted refugees for many years, however, the nation has still not formally ratified the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The current predicament underscores the urgent need for stronger regulations to support the proper handling of refugees. This includes providing clear guidelines for community involvement, ensuring adequate financial support for local governments and improving coordination with local actors to tackle people smuggling.

Reviews of existing refugee regulations must thoroughly consider the active roles played by local actors and communities – Indonesia cannot afford to continuously rely on the goodwill of community volunteers.  The management of Rohingya refugees in Langsa between 2015 and 2017 can serve as a model – involving the community in camp management helped facilitate warm relations between refugees and the local population  and built empathy for the conditions faced by refugees.

It will not be easy to reset local attitudes towards refugees. The Aceh case demonstrates how intense exposure to disinformation can shift a community’s mindset from a position of acceptance to intolerance. Indonesia will also need to work closely with social media companies and media outlets to contain the damaging impact of misinformation on community attitudes.

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