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Updated On: Sunday, 22 September 2019

A Difficult Start for Indonesia’s Rohingya Refugees

Content by: South-South News

1 June 2015, New York, USA | Brendan Pastor – In May, the global media spotlight was fixed on the migrant refugee crisis in the Bay of Bengal. 1,800 seaborne migrants – mostly from the Rohingya ethnic minority group – had been abandoned and left adrift at sea by smugglers after fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladesh. International outrage rose further when officials learned the migrants' attempts to reach shores in Thailand and Malaysia were rebuffed by the countries' navies.

Almost a month later, the migrants on that boat are now safely in Aceh, Indonesia, after being rescued by fishermen. Though their conditions are markedly better than on the boat, their future remains precarious.

"I left my country because I could not move freely. I could not work for income," said Mohammed, a boat survivor. "We've put up with so much... insults and harassment. We can't arrange marriages for our 'sisters and daughter's' because it's so costly. That's why I decided to go abroad, so that I could make a living."

[Mohammed's name is an alias to protect his identity.]

Rafique, another survivor, recounted stories of abuse by the smugglers during the travel. It includes both psychological abuses, but also a few cases of murder.

"'The navy is coming, the navy is coming' every day they threatened us," Rafique said. "The smugglers operated the boat for only two days and nights, and took the boat in a different direction. They told us they would leave us. There was one last sack of rice; they took that with them as well. They got on an empty boat and left us in the middle of the sea."

Mohammed had similar stories.

"They gave us very limited food and water. When we asked for more, they beat us. Whenever we tried to go to toilet, they also beat us. They always forced us to stay confined in the lower deck."

The United Nations estimates that over 25,000 migrants have made the seaborne journey since the beginning of the year in one of the biggest waves of emigration measured by refugee authorities. Officials say most fled due to persecution by their governments or locals in Bangladesh and Myanmar, but many also chose to seek work in the more developed economies of Southeast Asia.

World leaders expressed concern after news of regional disagreement on who would accept the migrants resulted in their long-term abandonment at sea. A regional conference was due to take place, but late expressions of disagreement from Malaysian authorities indicated a broader level of disagreement on how to crystallize a solution.

For now, the situation appears to have been mitigated somewhat by temporary measures to accept the migrants, such as those recently brought to Aceh.

Those like Mohammed have resigned themselves to what seems like an uncertain future for them.

"Now I am only looking towards you," he says to volunteer officials. "What you will do I will accept that. The government of this country, what they will decide for me, I will accept that."

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