LHOKSEUMAWE (INDONESIA) — On a remote island in northwestern Indonesia, just miles from the white sand beaches where more than a thousand Rohingya refugees have arrived since mid-November, throngs of residents marched outside a temporary shelter housing the newcomers.
“Shoo them away!” a protest leader chanted, met by cheers.
As sailing conditions have improved in recent months, more than half a dozen flimsy wooden boats have made the dangerous sea crossing from Bangladesh, where about a million Rohingyas have settled after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Their arrival marks the biggest influx to Indonesia since 2015, according to the UN refugee agency.
But after weeks at sea, the refugees face new obstacles on land: locals trying to turn their boats around, protesters attempting to raze their tents, and an Indonesian government that has left their future an open question.
Jakarta has agreed to assist the new arrivals temporarily, sheltering and feeding them over the objections of some local authorities, but it has called on neighbouring countries to offer the Rohingyas a permanent home.
As a result the refugees have been left in limbo, shuffled from place to place as authorities and aid groups struggle to find adequate shelter or left to live in tents by the sea.
“I think our future will be better in Indonesia if the government of Indonesia and the people of Indonesia allow us to stay,” Mr Manzur Alam, a 24-year-old who arrived last month, told AFP at a shelter in Lhokseumawe city in Aceh province.
“If they do not allow us to stay, we do not know where to go.”
‘WE REJECT ROHINGYA REFUGEES’
The arrival of Rohingyas by sea has become an annual event in Aceh.
As conditions in Bangladesh’s refugee camps have deteriorated, amid rising crime and diminishing educational prospects, some refugees have opted to set sail for Indonesia or Malaysia.
Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, are sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslims.
Some wish to welcome the refugees and offer them clothes, supplies and medicine upon their arrival.
But others say their patience has been tested, claiming the Rohingyas consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.
At least one boat has been turned away, with exhausted refugees swimming ashore to plead their case. They were forced to sail elsewhere in Aceh to find a place to land.
At the shelter on Sabang island, where hundreds of protesters marched in opposition to the Rohingyas on Monday, a thin line of police stood between the demonstrators and the refugees’ tents.
At another shelter in a government building in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, an AFP journalist observed a banner that read: “We, the residents of Kota Baru village, reject Rohingya refugees”.
On social media, AFP’s Factcheck team has seen an uptick in negative social media posts, rumours and misinformation about Rohingyas.
‘I WILL PRAY’
The government in Jakarta has so far sought to protect the newcomers, granting them temporary shelter even as residents and local authorities have sought to turn them away.
But President Joko Widodo said this month that traffickers were to blame for the influx of refugees and that his government would place “a priority on the interests of the local community” as it offered short-term relief.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it cannot be compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, calling instead on neighbouring countries to share the burden and resettle Rohingyas who arrive on its shores.
“Indonesia continues to appeal to the party countries to show bigger responsibilities in the effort to handle the refugees from Rohingya,” foreign ministry spokesman Lalu Muhamad Iqbal said last week, referring to the UN convention’s signatories.
The rising anti-refugee sentiment and calls by Indonesia for Rohingyas to be relocated have alarmed human rights groups.
“We all see that the central government seems to close their eyes on handling the Rohingya refugees stranded in Aceh,” Azharul Husna, coordinator of rights group Kontras Aceh, told AFP.
“We handle it like firefighters, we get busy when the arrivals happen.”At the shelter in Lhokseumawe, Mr Alam said his future is in the hands of the UN and he is just happy to be on dry land.
“I will pray for all the people who are in the sea,” he said.AFP