Zuhara Bagem, a Rohingya asylum-seeker who arrived with his family in Indonesia’s Aceh province at the end of November, was relieved when the boat was allowed to land at Bireuen beach.
“If he had stayed on that boat for another one or two days, my children would probably have died. We had not eaten anything for ten days,” Zuhara told DW.
After disembarking, many asylum-seekers lay exhausted on the beach or sat with relief to again be on dry land.
Over the past few weeks, many boats overloaded with Rohingya people have been arriving off the coast of Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh province on Sumatra island. While some of the boats have managed to land safely on the shore, many others were rejected.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority who were mainly based in Myanmar’s Rakhine province before hundreds of thousands fled military persecution in 2017 to neighboring Bangladesh. Most are accommodated in the sprawling refugee camps at Cox’s Bazaar on Bangladesh’s southeastern coast.
However, due to dangerous and squalid living conditions at Cox’s Bazaar, many Rohingya have fled again by sea to nearby Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
The asylum-seekers risk an 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) sea voyage to Aceh province, and locals have reported boats trying to land in remote districts like Bireuen, Sabang, Pidie and Aceh Besar.
Many of Aceh’s residents tried to ward off the boats after giving them little food and water.
Earlier this week, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said that an estimated 400 Rohingya Muslims are believed to be aboard two damaged boats adrift without food or water in the Andaman Sea, according to reports in The Associated Press. The UN warned these people face death if nothing is done to provide them with supplies or organize a rescue.
Welcome for Rohingya wearing thin in Aceh
Although many Aceh residents initially accepted the Rohingya people, the onslaught of arrivals has increased tensions in the poor, remote province.
Some boats are repeatedly pushed back to sea, before finally being allowed to land after multiple attempts, according to local DW reporters.
Although the residents of Aceh share the same Islamic religious background, locals are concerned about the large number of arrivals.
Mauliadi, a villager in Bireuen, told DW that he hopes the Rohingya will go “back to their own country.”
“I do not want them to move to other parts of Aceh. We hope that the local and central government can guard the sea, so that the Rohingya are not left unescorted,” he said.
Most Rohingya do not have citizenship status in any country, making attempts at “repatriation”a convoluted and complicated process.
Local resident and member of the Aceh’s local government, Iskandar Usman Alfarlaky, said that tensions between locals and the asylum-seekers have only risen recently.
“When the Rohingya first came to Aceh, there was no resistance from the locals. In fact, the people of Aceh accommodated them with shelter, provided food, drink, and all other necessities,” he told DW.
“However, recently an increasing number of Rohingya have entered Aceh,” he added.
“In previous cases, many Rohingya left the designated camps and ran away. Locals also reported negative behaviors, which collided with their social and environmental norms. This is a problem. It then triggers resistance from residents,” Alfarlaky said.
Resources running out
According to Indonesian government data, there are currently 1,487 Rohingya asylum-seekers registered in Indonesia. The number is expected to increase as more continue to arrive.
At present, Rohingya arrivals are placed in temporary shelters in Aceh and Medan in North Sumatra province and Pekanbaru in Riau province.
These shelters, however, are well over capacity. Some of the migrants have already fled, with their whereabouts unknown.
Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mahfud MD, told journalists this week that the government will find temporary shelters for the asylum-seekers.
He added that authorities will also coordinate with the coast guard to prevent more boats carrying Rohingya arrivals from entering Indonesian waters.
“What are you going to do with those who have already entered? We must use a humanitarian approach,” he said, adding the Indonesian government will continue coordinating with the UNHCR on the matter.
He admitted that current shelters and the local Aceh government are overwhelmed by the influx.
What will come next?
Munawaratul Makhya, a UNHCR field officer in Aceh, said it is common for Rohingya boats to arrive on Aceh’s shores in November and December.
“Indeed, the pattern is that it is always busy at the end of the year. There are many factors, especially the sea conditions,” Makhya told DW.
She said the UNHCR and the local government are providing the arrivals with first aid, food, water and temporary shelter.
However, Makhya admitted that the continuous influx is beginning to test the tolerance of locals towards the Rohingya, which she said is generally high.
“People in Aceh experienced a lengthy conflict. Then there was a tsunami. So, life as a refugee is not something strange for the people of Aceh.”
Local lawmaker Alfarlaky said he hopes that the central government will act immediately to deal with the situation before tensions rise further.
“Because of humanity, we [people of Aceh] are obliged to help. But the people here also have extremely limited capabilities to help, especially economically,” he said.
With additional reporting from Aceh province by Sharon Magriet Sumolang
Edited by: Wesley Rahn