At least 5 Rohingya refugee boats detected off Indonesian coast

Indonesian authorities detected at least five boats packed tight with refugees approaching shores of Aceh province, officials said Thursday.

The boats are the latest in a surge of vessels that have arrived in Aceh, most carrying Rohingya refugees from southern Bangladesh, where the persecuted Muslim minority fled in 2017 following attacks by the military in their homeland of Burma.

Indonesia intensified patrols of its waters after a sharp rise in Rohingya refugees arriving since November, said Aceh’s Air Force Base Commander Col. Yoyon Kuscahyono. He said air patrols detected at least five boats Wednesday entering Indonesian waters, likely carrying Rohingya refugees. They were spotted entering the regencies of Lhokseumawe, East Aceh, Pidie, Aceh Besar and Sabang in north Aceh province.

INDONESIA SUSPECTS HUMAN TRAFFICKERS INVOLVED IN RECENT ROHINGYA REFUGEE SPIKE

Indonesia appealed to the international community for help on Dec. 12, after more than 1,500 Rohingya refugees arrived on its shores since November.

Muslims comprise nearly 90% of Indonesia’s 277 million people, and Indonesia once tolerated such landings while Thailand and Malaysia pushed them away. But there has been a surge of anti-Rohingya sentiment in 2023, especially in Aceh, on the northern part of the island of Sumatra, where most end up landing. Residents accuse the Rohingya of poor behavior and creating a burden, and in some cases have pushed their boats away.

Ethnic Rohingya people walk to a temporary shelter after they landed on their wooden boat in North Aceh, Indonesia, on Nov. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Zik Maulana)

With pressure growing on President Joko Widodo’s government to take action, he said Indonesia will still help the refugees temporarily on a humanitarian basis.

Indonesia, like Thailand and Malaysia, is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention outlining their legal protections, so is not obligated to accept them. However, they have so far all provided at least temporary shelter to refugees in distress.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lalu Muhamad Iqbal told reporters Wednesday that the government is willing to provide temporary shelters for Rohingya refugees “to give time for international organizations that have a mandate to handle this matter, especially UNHCR, to able to carry out their obligations.”

About 740,000 Rohingya were resettled in Bangladesh after fleeing their homes in neighboring Burma to escape a brutal counterinsurgency campaign carried out in 2017 by security forces. Accusations of mass rape, murder and the burning of entire villages are well documented, and international courts are considering whether Burmese authorities committed genocide and other grave human rights abuses.

The Muslim Rohingya are largely denied citizenship rights in Buddhist-majority Burma and face widespread social discrimination. Efforts to repatriate them have failed because of doubts their safety can be assured.

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Most of the refugees leaving by sea attempt to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia, east of Aceh across the Malacca Strait, in search of work.

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