A group of 20 Rohingya men whose boat reached Indonesia on Tuesday have sparked fears of a renewed wave of dangerous sea journeys undertaken by members of the ethnic minority fleeing Myanmar, with an activist saying dozens more refugees are likely at sea.
The group of men – ranging in age from 14 to 50 years old – landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province on Sumatra Island on a rickety wooden boat on Tuesday, according to a local official.
"They are Rohingya from Myanmar. We asked them where they were heading and they said they were going to Malaysia," Idi Rayeuk district navy commander Razali, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP news agency. "Maybe it's because of the currents that they've landed here instead."
The reportedly hungry men were given food and water in the town of Kuala Idi.
The northern coast of Sumatra lies more than 600 kilometres south of the southern tip of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, separated by the Andaman Sea. Malaysia lies further to the east.
It was not immediately clear whether the boat had departed from Myanmar or Bangladesh, but in recent weeks authorities in both countries have stopped boats filled with fleeing Rohingya heading mostly for Malaysia.
Few have attempted the treacherous crossing since a Thai crackdown on people smuggling networks in 2015 left large numbers abandoned at sea. That year hundreds of Rohingya landed in Aceh.
Since then, more than 730,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing a 2017 crackdown in Rakhine State that a UN Fact Finding Mission said was carried out by Myanmar authorities with “genocidal intent”.
Myanmar regards members of the Rohingya minority as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, maintain they are indigenous to the state, where Muslim communities have been documented as living for centuries. In addition to “clearance operations” involving killing, rape and burning of entire villages, authorities have detained tens of thousands of Rohingya in sprawling camps since communal violence swept the area in 2012.
In April, about 80 Rohingya in a wooden boat landed in Aceh, weeks after dozens more arrived in Malaysia. Both countries have opened their doors to asylum seekers, but the stateless Rohingya lack legal means of travel.
With the Rohingya facing dire conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh and internment camps in Rakhine, the numbers attempting boat journeys to Malaysia and Indonesia are likely to increase as the monsoon comes to an end, an activist warns.
“I think in coming weeks there will be more boats as the weather becomes clearer,” said Ro Nay San Lwin, a coordinator for the advocacy group Free Rohingya Coalition. “People are leaving because they are living in concentration camps: they don’t have livelihoods, their lives are intolerable; that’s why they are taking this risky journey to Malaysia. Their situation is do or die.”
Myanmar authorities have stopped four boatloads of Rohingya fleeing camps in Rakhine state in the past three weeks, he said, including one boat reportedly carrying 93 people.
Other migrants are already at sea, he said. “There are some other boats on the way to Malaysia. They leave secretly, most of the time we know but it’s difficult to verify.”
Myanmar authorities had agreed to repatriate an initial group of 2,260 refugees last month, but the Rohingya say they will not return without guarantees of citizenship rights and protection.
Fears of involuntary repatriation may prompt Rohingya in Bangladesh to consider dangerous boat journeys, rights watchdog Amnesty International has cautioned. “There is panic among the Rohingya refugees about the possibility of forced returns that are prompting them to flee their camps and even take boats to move to other countries, simply to resist return,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty’s regional campaigner for South Asia.
“Bangladesh must understand that any hasty return without consultation with the refugees can amount to refoulement,” he added, referring to the forcible return of refugees to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution.
The boat journeys come as Myanmar authorities have continued inflammatory rhetoric against the Rohingya. On Tuesday, Myanmar’s Minister for Religion said Muslim Rohingya living in Bangladesh were being “brainwashed” into “marching” on Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Thura Aung Ko referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” a term used in Myanmar to assert they are recent migrants from Bangladesh. “The future goal of those over populated Bengalis is to march on Myanmar,” he said in a video shared by NewsWatch, a news website.