Rohingya in Aceh: Sailing into Indonesia’s unsteady embrace
Aceh in Indonesia has proven to be a rare harbour of safety and embrace for Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat. But as sailing season begins again, funds and patience are running desperately low in the religiously conservative province.
BIREUEN, Indonesia: For one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, in the midst of their struggle, there was always one place they were welcomed.
In 2015, Rohingya piling onto boats to escape a life of detention and exile in northern Myanmar were mostly hoping to reach Malaysian shores.
But for those who made it to Indonesia instead, they found themselves in a rare embrace.
Small fishing communities like Bireuen in the religiously conservative province of Aceh, facing the Andaman Sea which the migrants had weathered for days on end, gave welcome refuge to the newcomers.
Fellow Sunni Muslims, the Rohingya were considered brothers and sisters, and while boats were routinely being turned away by Thai and Malaysian authorities, they would not be denied in Aceh.
When Nur Hakim and 78 others set out in April this year from a detention camp in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state, their boat was something of an anomaly - the smuggling networks enabling them had been quiet for a couple of years.
In the meantime, some 700,000 Rohingya had fled Rakhine state across the border into Bangladesh, under a military crackdown likened to genocide by the United Nations.
Hakim, just 15 years old, was not part of that mass exodus. But a lack of freedom and rising desperation had driven him and the others from their camps. His family could only afford one berth on the boat - he had become their only hope.
“We had no rice, no school, no job, no mosque, nothing left there. So it's better to leave,” he said.
Just like their predecessors, they were welcomed when their boat reached Indonesia. The journey took nine days, he says, after they first arrived in Langkawi but were pushed on by the Malaysian navy.
Despite their unexpected arrival in Bireuen, they found food, shelter and prayer. The local community brought donations and a heartfelt empathy for the plight of the men, women and children.
But the timing has proved to be unfortunate.
Two years ago, the Indonesian government and its partner the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were rolling out necessary contingencies to care for the hundreds of Rohingya in Aceh. In Medan, 322 remain stranded indefinitely as registered refugees but with housing options and a monthly allowance.
However, since Mar 15, IOM is no longer able to finance the needs of newly arrived migrants after budget cuts from the organisation’s principal donor, the Australian government.
“We cannot assist them here. We are trying to help as much as we can but financially we cannot because of our budget limitations,” said IOM’s deputy chief of mission in Indonesia, Dejan Micevski.
“We also cannot send those people home. There are no documents and it’s very difficult.”
Now, with the responsibility of caring for these people falling entirely into the arms of local agencies, the situation has become more dire. As months drift by without a permanent solution for the Rohingya, money is running out fast and so too is patience, on both sides.
The Rohingya in Bireuen are being housed in a government complex. The men camp out on a concrete slab, with a corrugated iron roof above them the only barrier to the elements. The women and children are separated, living in a small building with dirty tiled floors and basic wooden bunks to sleep on.
None of them is allowed to leave the premises. There is a small makeshift mosque to pray in. There is a field but no ball sports are permitted.
The donations have dried up. Volunteers at the camp are weary. A health clinic on the grounds for their needs has shut down. And the migrants themselves are tormented by the enforced inactivity.
Regular Bahasa Indonesian language lessons, a key step to supporting the Rohingya’s interactions and assimilation with locals, have been put on pause.
"It is important because communication is one of the most pivotal things in our life. At first, we teach them by using body language because none of us understand their language. As the time goes by, we then teach the language by touching objects and they gradually understand," said T Qadarisman, a member of Aksi Cepat Tanggap, an Indonesian charity organisation. He explained that tri-weekly lessons have not happened for the past two months.
“The locals are nice and kind but they are no longer helping us recently,” Hakim said. “Many of us here thought we could work and earn money for our family. However, we've been here for eight months and are unable to do anything,” Hakim said.
The Aceh Social Agency is in charge of caring for the migrants, but is struggling with their daily needs. Its secretary Devi Riansyah says the agency has been forced to use warehoused food intended as emergency relief in the event of a disaster to feed the Rohingya.
It has left him and his staff worried and frustrated, less than 15 years since the Boxing Day Tsunami devastated this region.
“Have we violated our own law? Yes, we have for seven months. Therefore, we expect the central government to have provided a solution,” he said.
“The Rohingya should not be in Bireuen for so long. They are only still here because we care and pity them. It is impossible for Aceh people to reject those who share the same faith with us.”
Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugees Convention, a treaty that sets out the rights of those seeking asylum and the responsibilities of the nations that host them. That prevents the Rohingya from finding work or gaining further education.
The rate of third party resettlements from Indonesia has also slowed significantly in recent years, due to foreign government policies and the huge movement of asylum seekers across the globe.
“I believe everyone is busy with their own problems. The economic growth of Indonesia means donors don’t see it as a country in dire need of assistance,” Micevski said. “The numbers are small compared to others. It’s difficult to attract the attention of donors.”
Plans are in place to move the migrants from the current location in Bireuen to another city, Langsa, where 21 more Rohingyas arrived on a boat in November. But Devi explains that authorities there are also ill-equipped to accommodate them and it would only be a temporary solution.
Authorities are also already preparing themselves for the arrival of more boats - with the end of the monsoon in Myanmar, the sailing season has begun.
“What we need is a legal umbrella to handle them. If the conditions forced them to come here, we’ll serve them but we want to do it based on the law,” he said.
“If they are left behind like this, they become a burden. We will not reject them, they are human.”