Jakarta [Indonesia], November 23: More than 200 Rohingya refugees were relocated from the beaches of a remote Indonesian island Wednesday after weeks adrift on a wooden boat, as authorities rejected locals' efforts to push the members of the persecuted Myanmar minority back to sea. The latest arrivals brought to more than 1,000 the number of desperate and exhausted Rohingya who have landed on the shores of Aceh province in the last week.
Thousands from the mostly Muslim minority risk their lives each year making sea journeys from refugee camps in Bangladesh, often in flimsy boats, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia. The latest group of 219 refugees, which included 72 men, 91 women and 56 children, arrived in Sabang city in western Aceh province, at around 11:00 pm (1600 GMT) Tuesday. But they were rejected by locals who threatened to put them back to sea.
"How can we go anywhere?" 15-year-old Rohingya refugee Abdul Rahman asked. "We don't want to go back." Local authorities then agreed to their relocation by ferry later on Wednesday to a temporary shelter at an old immigration building in one of Aceh's biggest cities, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said. "The plan is for the refugees to be relocated to a shelter in Lhokseumawe," Sabang social agency head Naufal, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.
He said the relocation had been coordinated with UNHCR. "The (local) government decided to take them to a place designated by the national government," UNHCR protection associate Faisal Rahman told AFP on Wednesday.
A day earlier, 256 previous Rohingya arrivals were given a reprieve when Indonesia granted them three months of temporary shelter and moved them to the same Lhokseumawe facility. Another 36 Rohingya who arrived in East Aceh on Sunday were also moved to the same location on Wednesday, officials said. But local immigration official Izhar Rizky told AFP the shelter was "no longer suitable for use" and said it was in no condition to shelter more than 500 people.
The recent influx is the biggest wave of Rohingya refugee arrivals to Indonesia since 2015, Ann Maymann, a UNHCR representative in Indonesia, told AFP. Tuesday's late-night arrivals had spent 15 days at sea after leaving Bangladesh for Aceh, Abdul Rahman said. The engine of their vessel - which could be seen bobbing offshore - had been damaged, leaving them unable to travel elsewhere, he added.
On Wednesday, the refugees were seen huddled on a beach in Sabang - located on an island off the tip of northern Sumatra - surrounded by a yellow cordon and security officers to stop them from running away. Next to screaming babies, some children on the beach whacked the ground and built sandcastles, seemingly oblivious to the situation unfolding around them.
Later in the day the group set off on the ferry journey to mainland Aceh, with staff handing out snacks to children as one sick person was seen being transported on a stretcher and others were placed on the floor.
Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, have long been sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslims. But some say their patience has been tested, claiming the Rohingya consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.
'Emergency, humanitarian crisis'
More than a million people from the ethnic group have fled Myanmar since the 1990s, most in the wake of a 2017 military crackdown that forced the bulk of them to settle in camps in Bangladesh. Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, complaining that neighboring countries have shut their doors. But rights groups said Jakarta should do more to help under other international conventions such as those that enshrine the safety of life at sea.
"These conventions also oblige Indonesia to save those who are in danger at sea," Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid told AFP. "The latest wave of new refugees shows there is an emergency and humanitarian crisis experienced by the Rohingya." - AFP
Source: Kuwait Times