Rohingya crisis in Indonesia a ‘ticking time bomb’ if political indifference, misinformation continue: analysts

Observers warn of a “ticking time bomb”, saying worse conflict between locals and refugees is inevitable without a concerted effort to counteract the false narratives against the Rohingya.

Khan, who acts as an interpreter for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was on the ground last month to help with the rescue of the 151 refugees aboard the capsized boat, working in tandem with Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas).

Al Hussain, Basarnas’ Aceh chief, said his teams were doing their best but were stretched thin. “The boat was headed back into open sea after local residents refused to let it come ashore [on March 19]. We were only alerted [it had capsized] afterwards and arrived on the scene two days later.”

Rohingya refugees are seen on a capsized boat before being rescued in the waters of West Aceh, Indonesia, on March 21. Photo: Reuters

Between March 20 and 21, Basarnas managed to rescue 75 Rohingya refugees: 44 men, 22 women and nine children who were taken to a temporary shelter.

Rescue teams scouring the coast later discovered around 20 bodies, with the rest being declared missing. UNHCR has said the 76 lives lost represents the highest toll for an incident of its kind in Indonesia this year.

“Bodies are continuing to surface, most of which have started to decompose. We picked up a further 10 bodies from the waters around Aceh Jaya between March 24 and 25,” Hussain said.

“The survivors are still grieving for their loved ones lost at sea,” Khan said. “I spoke to one survivor who lost seven of her family members.”

02:01

Indonesia picks up dozens of Rohingya refugees in dramatic sea rescue

Indonesia picks up dozens of Rohingya refugees in dramatic sea rescue

Khan said he found the current hostility towards Rohingya in Indonesia “bewildering”, stressing he received a markedly different reception from the Acehnese when he first arrived.

“They were welcoming towards us and supplied us with basic needs. Something definitely happened in between,” he said.

During his brief stay in Aceh with the UNCHR team, Khan said he asked the locals about their change of heart. “When I asked them why they were no longer charitable, they told me they were suspicious of the motives of the Rohingya in coming to Aceh.”

He said Acehnese locals spoke of stories they had read on social media about Rohingya refugees coming after their land, in the manner that “the Israelis had driven away the Palestinians”.

“Despite my best attempts to assure them they had been misinformed, they didn’t want to listen to reason and insisted they only wanted to protect themselves.”

Meulaboh resident Burhanuddin Mochtar, 32, said the Acehnese simply had no more resources to help the Rohingya.

“We need to tend to our own needs and besides, why do they keep coming here?”

Members of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas search for missing Rohingya refugees in the sea near Calang, West Aceh, on March 23. Photo: AFP
Antje Missbach, a transmigration researcher at Germany’s Bielefield University, said she had observed a concerted wave of disinformation on Indonesian social media in the lead-up to February’s election that aimed to “discredit” and “demonise” Rohingya refugees.

“The Rohingya were presented as undeserving of sympathy at best and at worst a threat to people’s livelihood as well as Indonesia’s national security,” she said, adding Indonesian authorities did not seem inclined to counter the narrative.

In December last year, Indonesian Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin said he doubted whether the newly arrived Rohingya in Aceh were true refugees fleeing a humanitarian crisis.

“We’ve uncovered evidence of human trafficking syndicates at work. We must prevent future operations to smuggle people into our territory,” he said.

Days before the vice-presidential statement, Indonesian police detained 11 Rohingya on suspicion of being linked to a smuggling ring that profited from transporting refugees from Bangladesh to Indonesia.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees receive bread at their shelter in Meulaboh, West Aceh, on March 23. Photo: AFP

But Missbach said the Indonesian government’s emphasis on the people-smuggling aspect only enriched the criminals they sought to deter.

“I interviewed refugees who arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Aceh and they told me they had paid 10,000 Malaysian ringgit [US$2,100] for their crossing, which was more than what they had paid for their passage from Bangladesh,” she said.

Rizka Prabaningtyas, a researcher in international relations and migration at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency, said she hoped the incoming administration under president-elect Prabowo Subianto would endeavour to improve conditions for the Rohingya.

“The new government can either opt for the humanitarian approach with an emphasis on respecting the refugees’ human rights, or disregard their inherent rights and go for the national security approach,” she said.

While the security approach was likely to be the easier path, she warned against “short-sightedness” in policy direction, saying Indonesia had its international reputation to consider.

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Indonesian students storm shelter for Rohingya refugees in Aceh to demand their deportation

Indonesian students storm shelter for Rohingya refugees in Aceh to demand their deportation

Rizka likened the refugee crisis to a “ticking time bomb” which Indonesia could not afford to ignore.

“The lack of government presence in the crisis has produced paranoia and disinformation among Indonesians about the refugees.”

Further government “neglect” would only lead to “horizontal conflicts” between local Indonesians and refugees, Rizka said, noting incidents in Aceh and elsewhere of locals clashing with refugees.

In December, Prabowo said that while he sympathised with the Rohingya, it was “unfair” to expect Indonesia to host them in unlimited numbers.

This Week In Asia reached out to officials from Prabowo’s Gerindra Party, who said the matter had “never cropped up in party discussion”.

Throughout last year’s presidential campaign, there were claims of Gerindra abetting the negative narratives against Rohingya refugees. These claims gained traction following the storming of a refugee safe house in Aceh by university students, led by Gerindra youth leader Teuku Wariza, in late December.

But Herzaky Mahendra Saputra, a spokesman for the Prabowo team, denied the accusation. “This is a humanitarian issue, not a populist one. We don’t profit from politicising it at all,” he said.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees receive medical treatment at their shelter in Meulaboh, West Aceh, on March 22. Photo: AFP

According to UNHCR, there are currently 12,616 refugees living in Indonesia, 55 per cent of whom came from Afghanistan, while the Rohingya make up only 6 per cent.

Most refugees in Indonesia are forbidden from seeking employment and rely on handouts from the International Organisation for Migration.

The way forward is not difficult, according to Rizka.

She pointed out Indonesia already had a legal framework to assist and manage any refugee crisis – the 2016 Presidential Regulation on Foreign Refugees, which lays out guidelines on how to deal with newly arrived refugees.

The guidelines, however, were not properly implemented, Rizka said, highlighting the “lack of coordination and mutual support between the central and regional governments”.

She said the current lack of political will to tackle the problem comprehensively had resulted in policy paralysis.

Locals donate used clothes for Rohingya refugees staying in a temporary shelter at the Indonesian Red Cross Office, after being evacuated from the sea at Meulaboh, West Aceh, Indonesia, on March 22. Photo: EPA-EFE

Khan agreed that faster response times would have helped save more survivors of the capsized boat, as it had taken Basarnas two days to be deployed to rescue the Rohingya in West Aceh.

He said he and his people only wanted to escape a “certain death” in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.

“My life was then under threat from the Nasaka [Myanmar’s government security force], so I got away from the camp,” Khan said, adding other Rohingya were also fleeing from circumstances forced on them.

“Why are we being treated as criminals when all we want is just to survive?”

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