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Indonesia Struggles to Accept and Integrate Rohingya Refugees

Isha Desai | Indo Pacific Fellow

Image credit: وكالة أنباء أراكان (ANA) via Flickr.

On 27 December 2023, a crowd of students in Banda Aceh, located in the Indonesian island of Sumatra, stormed a Rohingya refugee shelter, calling for their deportation. The group were identified by green jackets as they stormed the basement of a convention centre housing Rohingya communities, many of whom were sitting on the floor in fear. The students broke through police lines to force 137 refugees onto trucks, holding their belongings in plastic bags. Al Jazeera notes that the students burnt tyres, chanting ‘kick them out’ and ‘reject Rohingya in Aceh’. They wore down the police guarding the refugees who ultimately helped the Rohingya people board the trucks to another government office.

In response, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) released a statement that the organisation was ‘deeply disturbed’ to see an attack that was ‘sheltering vulnerable refugee families, majority being children and women’. At the same time, Indonesian students such as 23 year old Kholilullah spoke to Agence France-Presse (AFP) saying they ‘don’t agree with the Rohingyas who keep coming here’, and 20-year-old Della Masrida asserting that ‘they came here uninvited, they feel like it is their country’.

President Joko Widodo has linked the influx of Rohingya refugees, who have escaped the Myanmar civil war, to increases in human trafficking in Indonesia. While he has promised to work with international organisations to provide temporary security, such rhetoric can inflame the views of many in Indonesia that the Rohingya do not deserve safe shelter in their country.

Rohingya refugees are an ethnic Muslim minority that reside in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country undergoing a vicious civil war. Despite many tracing their ancestry in Myanmar to the fifteenth century, Rohingya communities have been denied official recognition in Myanmar and are labelled as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 2017, 24,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed in an attempted genocide by Myanmar security forces, resulting in the emigration of 740,000 refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh. Up to 2,000 refugees are currently settled in Indonesia, viewed by many refugees as a ‘gateway to Malaysia’, a highly coveted destination for migrants. As more Rohingya Muslims flee mass rapes, killings and torture by Myanmar security forces, Indonesia is compelled to honour its 2016 Presidential Regulation, calling for better treatment of asylum seekers.


Unlike its peers in Indo Pacific region, the Indonesian Government has not officially ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and is therefore not obligated to provide permanent support for Rohingya refugees. Indonesia has instead suggested migrants settle in a third country. Much of this tension has surfaced due to Aceh residents’ claims that there aren’t enough resources for both citizens and refugees, resulting in the December 27th student protest.

Why is this happening?

The protest is suspected to be a result of an ‘organised and systematic’ disinformation campaign on social media in advance of the Indonesian general elections scheduled for 14 February. Some social media posts claim that the Rohingya refugees have taken Indonesians’ food and land and have engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour, despite no substantial evidence to back these claims. Other posts claim that Indonesia is under no obligation to assist or provide shelter for Rohingya refugees, with many spreading unfiltered hate speech in the process. Chairul Fahmi, a Rohingya researcher and law professor at Ar-Raniry State University in Banda Aceh suspects that the students may have been instructed to carry out the attack by political actors serving their own agenda, indicating that the protest ‘did not reflect typical student movement’. Anti-Rohingya sentiment could serve to sway voters ahead of the general election, where current frontrunner and Minister for Defence Prabowo Subianto has stated that Indonesia needs to ‘prioritise the welfare of its own people’.

The UNCHR reports that more than 1500 Rohingya have arrived in Indonesia by boat since November 2023, despite attempts by Indonesia’s navy to drive ships out of its waters.  Though many have condemned the influx of refugees, many Aceh residents who have themselves experienced violent conflict are sympathetic to the suffering of their fellow Muslims.



What happens next?


There are indications that more Rohingya Muslims will arrive to Indonesia by boat, further complicating Indonesia’s situation. Aceh’s local police chief Fauzi has spoken about the refugees’ dehydration and exhaustion after weeks of travel, and Protection Associate at UNHCR Muhammad Rafki Syukri has promised to provide translators and counsellors for new arrivals.


In the face of these challenges, concerns persist that the Indonesian government has not equipped regions such as Banda Aceh with the necessary resources to shelter growing arrivals. This, coupled with a growing disinformation social media campaign that frames Rohingya Muslims as ‘dangerous threats’ have spurred hostility and violence. If these tensions are left unaddressed, violence between Indonesian citizens and the growing Rohingya population in Indonesia will escalate, creating an unwarranted and damaging conflict for both sides.

Isha Desai is the Indo Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is a graduate from the University of Sydney in Politics, International Relations, and Political Economy.

Isha is an emerging researcher and policy analyst with a keen interest in Australia’s future in the Indo Pacific, climate security and foreign policy. She has worked as a policy researcher for the Australian Humans Rights Commission, the United States Studies Centre and most recently Legal Aid NSW where she co-authored a literature review that was awarded the 2023 Sydney Policy Reform Project Prize.


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