Rohingya Refugees and the Shifting Tide in Indonesia

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Rohingya Refugees and the Shifting Tide in Indonesia

Aceh’s growing hostility toward Rohingya arrivals proves that international, regional, and federal support is essential for sustainable community-driven responses. 

Rohingya Refugees and the Shifting Tide in Indonesia

Protesters burn tires during a protest rejecting Rohingya refugees in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Reza Saifullah

In the span of a month between mid-November and mid-December of 2023, nine boats carrying 1,543 Rohingya disembarked in Aceh, Indonesia. It was the largest number of arrivals since the so-called 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis

Indonesia, and particularly local communities in the province of Aceh, was once heralded for its open and welcoming approach to Rohingya arriving by boat. However, this recent surge in arrivals has marked a substantial shift in Indonesia’s response. Communities that were once actively engaged in rescue efforts at sea and providing assistance to Rohingya refugees stand in contrast to increasing pushback and hostilities towards new arrivals. 

This stark change in sentiment on the ground in Aceh reflects, and is likely influenced by broader dynamics in terms of a continued lack of international support, regional cooperation, and federal government commitment to address the displacement of Rohingya across the region. It brings to light the fragility of the current aid mechanisms, which rely on local communities to implement responses alone without adequate support and serves as a stark reminder that sustainable solutions require a united front from global, regional, and national actors.

Onward Movements Driven by a Lack of Durable Solutions and Deteriorating Camp Conditions in Bangladesh

According to UNHCR in 2023, 4,490 Rohingya in about 41 boats have embarked on sea journeys from Bangladesh and Myanmar, in search of safety and brighter prospects in other countries, predominantly Indonesia and Malaysia. The majority (62 percent) arrived in Indonesia, while others disembarked or were intercepted in Myanmar (27 percent), Bangladesh (5 percent), India (4 percent), Malaysia (2 percent), and Thailand (1 percent). Among these arrivals, a significant proportion comprised women (27 percent) and children (38 percent). 

These boat journeys are fraught with dangers, including overcrowded vessels, treacherous sea conditions, and limited access to basic necessities like food and water. In 2023, a total of 636 people were reported dead or missing during their journeys. With the calm water season after the monsoons continuing until April 2024, it is anticipated that the number of boats aiming to reach Indonesia will continue steadily during the first quarter of this year.

These recent arrivals are occurring against the backdrop of deteriorating conditions in the camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, hosting close to 1 million Rohingya refugees. In the camps, refugees face escalating challenges, including rising gang violence, susceptibility to climate-related disasters like floods, landslides, and fires, limited access to employment and education, restricted mobility, overcrowding and food insecurity perpetuated by cuts in food rations

Additionally, despite ongoing pressure from Bangladesh and Myanmar under a repatriation plan backed by China, the conditions necessary for safe, dignified, sustainable, and voluntary repatriation to Myanmar – including full citizenship and equal access to basic rights such as the rights to livelihood, religious freedom, and freedom of movement – remain unmet in the context of escalating conflict within the country and persistent systemic persecution of the Rohingya. 

The protracted displacement faced by Rohingya, coupled with limited prospects in Bangladesh, has prompted many to embark on the perilous sea journeys in search of a safer future within the region. As a sign of the growing desperation, increasing numbers of women and children (65 percent in 2023, up from 54 percent in 2022) are boarding the rickety boats for a potentially deadly journey. Furthermore, unlike in the past when Indonesia primarily served as a transit point for migrants and refugees traveling to Australia and Malaysia, it is now increasingly becoming an intended destination among new arrivals. 

Community Driven Initiatives Need Support to Ensure Their Sustainability 

Community-led responses have historically played a pivotal role in Indonesia’s response to boat arrivals, with local communities in Aceh organizing support to Rohingya refugees arriving on their shores and local fishermen conducting rescue efforts, despite pushback from Indonesian authorities. While community-driven responses in this context have previously showcased resilience and compassion, the welcoming approach of locals in Aceh is wearing thin. Recent Rohingya arrivals have faced hostility, including the use of force from local communities, threats of deportation and eviction from shelters led by student movements, and increased border patrols led by Indonesian authorities in conjunction with local fishermen

This shift in sentiment in Aceh is illustrative of the strain placed on primarily poor local communities, which have historically been left to confront the impacts of protracted displacement with limited resources and support. The resulting phenomenon is often described as “solidarity fatigue.” 

The imprisonment of three fishermen in 2022 convicted of people smuggling offenses for facilitating the embarkment of Rohingya refugees may have also contributed to the recent change in sentiment within the community. Additionally, an online hate campaign disseminating misinformation about the Rohingya has further eroded public solidarity and fueled anti-Rohingya sentiment among the local communities of Aceh, resulting in rejection and protests against this new wave of arrivals.

Pushback against boats carrying Rohingya refugees has unfortunately been common throughout the region for some time, as illustrated by the harrowing events of 2015. More recently, against the backdrop of COVID-19, countries such as Malaysia and Thailand have sought to justify continued pushback, including arrest and detention of irregular arrivals. This was in contrast to Indonesia’s relative progressiveness, particularly at the local level, where scenes of local fishermen taking part in rescue efforts, and defying authorities’ pushback directives, were common. 

At a federal level, Indonesia’s  commitment to improving refugee governance, including the commendable initiatives in alternative to detention policies and provision of educational rights for refugee children, has earned international acclaim, notably at forums like the Global Refugee Forum. However, the recent official statement by Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during the second Global Refugee Forum in December 2023, associating Rohingya arrivals with transnational criminal networks and advocating for stronger law enforcement, shows the tides are turning, and raises increasing concerns about the evolving narratives on refugees in the country. 

The Absence of International, Regional, and Federal Support

At the core of Indonesia’s turning tide on the ground in Aceh is a historic lack of support from the international community, regional counterparts, and the federal government. 

The international response to Rohingya displacement has diminished amid other humanitarian crises, with neighboring nations, including Indonesia, facing the brunt of the protracted crisis without adequate support.

Regional collaboration, crucial for managing large-scale displacement, is lacking, forcing a handful of nations within the region to grapple with the crisis in isolation. Eight years after the large-scale irregular maritime movements in Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal in 2015, where about 8,000 refugees and migrants were left stranded at sea, there has been no concrete action taken to address regional preparedness for such large-scale displacements and risky maritime movements. This inaction is evident in the recent failure to respond to the UNHCR’s plea for the search and rescue of two boats in distress in the Andaman Sea in early December, reminiscent of 2015. One of the boats, carrying 180 refugees, is believed to have sunk without effective intervention. 

The minimal contribution from Southeast Asian nations to the multi-stakeholder pledge for Rohingya refugees during the recent Global Refugee Forum further highlights a lack of regional collaboration. The government of Thailand was the only ASEAN member state to have contributed to the pledge. The absence of proactive measures from neighboring countries, particularly Malaysia and Thailand, coupled with the prevailing pushback practices, generates a ripple effect that intensifies the pressure on Indonesia to take the lead in rescue and protection efforts. 

Further, at the federal level, while President Regulation No. 125/2016 establishes a refugee protection framework in Indonesia, the decentralized governance system has led to inconsistent responses at local level. Lacking adequate funding and support from the federal government, local administrations are left to manage the crisis independently.

Call for Comprehensive Solutions 

The current situation demands urgent collaboration on multiple fronts. The international community must reassess its commitment to addressing the protracted displacement of Rohingya, recognizing the shared responsibility in providing a sustainable solution. The recent joint decision by Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom as well as the Maldives to intervene in the International Court of Justice genocide case filed by the Gambia against Myanmar is one such positive example. 

While regional cooperation has made progress, especially with the activation of the Bali Process Consultation Mechanism at the Eighth Bali Process Ministerial Conference in February 2023, it has yet to translate into a clear pathway toward better responses to the increase in maritime movement witnessed in the last two months. Regional counterparts should revive cooperation by leveraging the existing frameworks, particularly the Bali Process, to ensure a coordinated and effective response, thereby preventing the recurrence of incidents reminiscent of the Andaman Sea crisis. 

At the federal level, the Indonesian government must step up its involvement, not only to alleviate the immediate challenges in terms of local capacity and resources constraints, but also to devise long-term strategies for refugee integration and support within the country.

In conclusion, the shifting sentiments in Aceh and the broader change in responses to Rohingya arrivals in Indonesia reflects the multifaceted nature of the challenges of managing a complex and protracted crisis without sufficient global, regional, and national support. While community-driven responses are essential, sustainable long-term solutions require international, regional, and federal support. Without this support, local communities will likely continue to become fatigued and overburdened, resulting in increasing resentment. 

Responding to the increase in boat arrivals of Rohingya to Indonesia demands a collaborative effort, emphasizing shared responsibility and a commitment to a sustainable and comprehensive solution.