How Will Indonesia Handle the Growing Number of Refugee Arrivals?

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How Will Indonesia Handle the Growing Number of Refugee Arrivals?

Jakarta is now pondering more permanent solutions to the increasing number of Rohingya refugees arriving in Aceh.

How Will Indonesia Handle the Growing Number of Refugee Arrivals?

An exhibition at a museum located in the former refugee camp on Indonesia’s Galang Island, which from 1975 to 1996 housed around 250,000 refugees from Indochina.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Annayu Maharani

Yesterday, BenarNews published a report detailing Indonesia’s difficulty in handling the sudden influx of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh – and of the fears that the government may choose to deport them back to Myanmar.

An estimated 1,487 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia in recent weeks, according to the country’s Ministry of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, most of them in Aceh, on the western tip of Sumatra.

Amid strained resources and growing local discontent in Aceh, the government is casting about how to accommodate the new arrivals, which has posed Jakarta with an unwelcome challenge.

In mid-November, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that since it is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Indonesia “has no obligation nor capacity to accommodate refugees, let alone to provide permanent solution.” A ministry spokesperson added that the country’s “kindness in providing temporary shelter has been misused by people smugglers.”

This has given rise to suggestions that the government simply send them back to Myanmar. Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, seemed to endorse this plan on Tuesday, claiming that Aceh did not have the space and resources to house the arrivals from Bangladesh, especially with more likely to arrive in the coming weeks.

“We’ve been lending a helping hand, and now we’re overwhelmed,” said Mahfud MD, whom President Joko Widodo has tasked with leading government efforts to deal with the issue. “We will discuss how to return them to their country through the U.N. I will lead the meeting.”

This has unsurprisingly prompted opposition from human rights groups. BenarNews quoted Nadine Sherani from the human rights group KontraS as saying that repatriation would simply return the Rohingya to the “hell” from which they initially fled. “The main actor of violence in Myanmar is the junta,” she said. “That is the reason they left the country.”

Also on the agenda is the possibility of reviving the old refugee camp Galang Island in the Riau Archipelago close to Indonesia’s maritime border with Singapore. From 1975 to 1996,  Galang accommodated around 250,000 refugees from Indochina, most of them from Vietnam, who fled communist persecution by sea.

This possibility was raised earlier this week by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin. “Where will they be placed? Well, we have Galang Island. We will discuss it later,” he told reporters in Depok, West Java.

“So far, it is impossible for us to refuse them,” he said, adding that he had discussed the issue during a meeting chaired by Mahfud MD. “We anticipate a rejection from the community and also anticipate all of the refugees to come here. That will be a burden.”

Speaking yesterday, Mahfud MD seemed to step away from the deportation plan, stating that he has asked Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian to deliberate on possible locations for the refugees. “We are currently finding a way to find another location for the refugees, given that their number has exceeded the capacity of the existing shelters,” he said, according to a report by Tempo.

The recent surge of arrivals reflects the deteriorating conditions in the refugee camps of southeastern Bangladesh, where around a million mostly Rohingya men, women, and children have languished for years. Most arrived there in August and September of 2017, when the Myanmar military drove more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians from Rakhine State into Bangladesh, in a campaign that a U.N. fact-finding panel claims was marked by “genocidal intent.”

The Indonesian planning speaks to the seemingly intractable nature of the Rohingya refugee crisis. “Six years after most of them fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State,” the International Crisis Group stated in a report released yesterday, “the almost one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are no closer to returning home.” With conditions in the refugee camps marked by “growing poverty and hopelessness,” international support waning, and little chance of repatriation to conflict-torn Myanmar, increasing numbers of people have felt compelled to undertake the dangerous ocean journeys to Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the number of Rohingya undertaking boat journeys jumped significantly last year. Based on the rash of recent arrivals in Aceh, it appears set to do so again in 2023.