Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have vanished from camps in the northern reaches of the Indonesian island of Sumatra in recent months, raising concerns that they are once again turning to dangerous smuggling rings in a bid to reach Malaysia.
“We get very worried about how safe they are,” said Thomas Vargas, the Indonesia representative for the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR.
“Lets face it, smugglers have shown how ruthless they can be,” he told IRIN. “They have already shown how completely they can disregard human life. So, obviously, we are very concerned when we see that this type of thing can happen again.”
Nearly 1,000 Rohingya refugees were rescued last May after human smugglers and traffickers abandoned boats at sea when Thailand and Malaysia launched a crackdown on their networks. Nearly eight months later, less than 400 Rohingya refugees remain in the temporary centres set up in Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, according to UNHCR.
Most of the missing refugees are either in Malaysia or somewhere in coastal North Sumatra, waiting to board smugglers' boats, according to aid organisations. The situation highlights the difficulties aid organisations face when trying to discourage refugees from working with people-smuggling rings.
The Rohingya initially received a warm welcome in Indonesia. Many were rescued by local fishermen, even as the Indonesian government refused to let them come ashore. (The authorities finally caved in to international pressure and allowed Rohingya asylum seekers and migrants from Bangladesh to land.) In Aceh, locals organised a concert to raise money and held a traditional welcoming ceremony for the refugees.
SEE: In Indonesia’s Aceh, a warm welcome for refugees in a sea of misery
The central government proved less receptive.
“The Acehnese and the local governments in Aceh have been very welcoming,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, which advocates for Rohingya refugees in Indonesia.
“They had hoped to integrate the refugees quickly into local communities, schools and economies,” she said. “The problem lies in the restrictions put in place by the national government, including the restriction on refugees working and the decision by immigration to keep the refugees in campsites only.”
The Geutanyoe Foundation has helped the Rohingya set up a vegetable and a duck farm, in an attempt to provide some form of work. But it does little to lessen the economic magnetism of Malaysia, a country with a sizeable Rohingya community that has access to the labour market.
“Even though they are grateful to Indonesia to save their lives, they have no desire to stay in Indonesia,” said Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, which advocates for the rights of Rohingya. “When I visited them in Aceh last May, a few days after their rescue or after recovering a bit, they were already asking how to get to Malaysia.”
For most, the answer remains smuggling networks — despite the dangers.
As many as 300 people died from starvation, dehydration and violence aboard the boats this year alone, according to UNHCR. Dozens of bodies were found in shallow graves outside smugglers’ camps in southern Thailand and Malaysia.
Going through the official process involves years of waiting in camps to be resettled in a country where Rohingya have no community and no way to earn a living. Desperation pushes the refugees to seek out faster alternatives, even though they know the dangers of getting involved in smuggling and trafficking networks.
“It has got to be a horrible choice to make,” said Vargas. “You are basically putting yourself on a boat not even knowing if you are ever going to see dry land again.”
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.