Indonesia faces criticism over plan to deport Rohingya to Myanmar

A government minister says country has been overwhelmed by about 1,500 refugees in a month.
Arie Firdaus and Nazarudin Latif for BenarNews
2023.12.06
Jakarta, Indonesia
Indonesia faces criticism over plan to deport Rohingya to Myanmar Rohingya families gather in a tent on a Sabang island beach in Aceh, Indonesia, Dec. 3, 2023.
[Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

Human rights activists and observers on Wednesday criticized a plan by the Indonesian government to return nearly 1,500 Rohingya to their home country of Myanmar, where they have faced persecution and violence.

The Indonesian government announced the plan a day earlier without giving a deportation date, saying Aceh province, where boats carrying Rohingya mostly land, was running out of space and money. In addition, residents were rejecting the foreigners’ presence.

“We’ve been lending a helping hand, and now we’re overwhelmed,” said Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. “We will discuss how to return them to their country through the U.N. I will lead the meeting.” 

The ministry reported that 1,487 Rohingya were in Indonesia, according to media reports. President Joko “Jokwoi” Widodo had tasked the minister with leading government efforts to deal with the issue.

Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, however, proposed a different solution: Relocate the Rohingya to an island near Singapore where the Indonesian government had sheltered Vietnamese refugees who escaped their country in the 1980s and 1990s.

Nadine Sherani, an activist with KonstraS, a Jakarta-based human rights group, said that by sending the Rohingya to Myanmar they could be exposed to atrocities linked to the junta, which seized power in a military coup in February 2021.

“That step will transfer them to the hell they have experienced before,” Nadine told BenarNews. 

“Does the government think about the long-term impact of repatriation? The main actor of violence in Myanmar is the junta. That is the reason they left the country,” she said.

Oppressed people

The Rohingya are one of the world’s most oppressed stateless people, according to the United Nations. They have been denied citizenship and basic rights by the Myanmar government, which considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. 

Following a military offensive in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017 that the U.N. described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” about 740,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh.

Seeking to escape difficult living conditions in Bangladesh refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district, thousands of Rohingya have risked their lives on perilous sea journeys to reach Indonesia and other destinations.

On Wednesday, police in Cox’s Bazar reported that four Rohingya had been killed within 24 hours during gunfights between members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the Arakan Solidarity Organization gangs in the Ukhia refugee camp.

Those killings brought the death toll to 10 in the sprawling Rohingya camps over the last 15 days and a total of 186 fatalities linked to violence in the camps since 2017.

Meanwhile in Aceh province, the Rohingya presence has caused resentment and hostility from some locals who have accused them of being a burden and a nuisance. 

On Nov. 16, a boat carrying 256 Rohingya was initially rejected by at least two groups of villagers in Aceh but was finally allowed to land after being stranded for three days. Another boat carrying more than 100 Rohingya landed on Sabang island on Dec. 2 after locals threatened to push it back to sea.

‘Urgent appeal’

Since then, UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, issued “an urgent appeal to all countries in the region, particularly those in the area surrounding the Andaman Sea, to swiftly deploy their full search and rescue capacities in response to reported vessels in distress with hundreds of Rohingya at risk of perishing.” 

In its statement issued on Saturday, UNHCR said it was concerned that Rohingya on two boats would run out of food and water. “[T]here is a significant risk of fatalities in the coming days if people are not rescued and disembarked to safety.”

Mahfud MD said Indonesia had shown compassion by taking in the Rohingya even though it was not a party to the U.N refugee convention, an international treaty that defines rights and obligations of refugees and host countries. 

“We could have turned them down flat. But we also have a heart. They could die at sea if no one wants them,” he said.

06 ID-rohingya2.JPG
Vietnamese children sit aboard an Indonesian Navy ship at Galang island as they wait to be repatriated from the island’s refugee camp, June 26, 1996. [Reuters]

Ma’ruf, the vice president, suggested the Rohingya be settled temporarily on the island near Singapore.

“We used Galang island for Vietnamese refugees in the past. We will discuss it again. I think the government must take action,” Ma’ruf said on Tuesday.

Galang housed about 250,000 Vietnamese refugees, known as “boat people,” from 1979 to 1996. The UNHCR built healthcare facilities, schools, places of worship and cemeteries.

Ma’ruf said the government could not turn away the Rohingya, but also had to consider local people’s objections and the possibility of more refugees arriving.

Angga Reynaldi Putra, of Suaka, a Jakarta-based NGO that advocates for the rights of refugees, said Indonesia was bound by the principle of non-refoulement – or the forced return of refugees to their home countries – because it had ratified the anti-torture convention through a law in 1998. 

“The anti-torture convention ratified by Indonesia also states that there is an obligation to prevent a person from returning to a situation where he or she experiences torture,” Angga told BenarNews.

He added that Indonesia issued a presidential regulation in 2016, which mandates providing assistance and protection for refugees in coordination with the regional government, the International Organization for Migration and the immigration office.

Angga warned that putting Rohingya on Galang island could limit their access to basic rights, such as health and education.

“If we consider human rights, there is a right to freedom of movement. Being placed on a certain island, their movement would be restricted,” he said.

Women and children

Mitra Salima Suryono, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Indonesia, said she hoped the issue could be resolved humanely.

“We are optimistic and hope to see the same strong spirit of solidarity and humanity as before,” Mitra said.

She said the Rohingya who arrived in Aceh a few days ago had endured difficult conditions after traveling for several days or weeks.

“Because of their long sea journey, many of them were exhausted and needed help such as food, drinks, clean water, sanitation and medicine when they arrived,” she said, adding that most of the Rohingya were children and women.

Adriana Elizabeth, a researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency, a government institution, said sending the Rohingya back to their home country should be a last resort.

“The Myanmar government does not recognize them. Their citizenship status is also unclear,” Adriana told BenarNews.

She said the best step for Indonesia was to press Myanmar to acknowledge the refugees’ plight.

“The presence of the Rohingya in several regions in Indonesia has created new problems in the country,” she said.

Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.

BenarNews is an online news outlet affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

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