Myanmar Rohingya Face Limbo in Indonesia
Lhokseumawe, Aceh. A group of Rohingya asylum-seekers from Myanmar prayed peacefully alongside Indonesians at a mosque in Sumatra, a sign of the solidarity they have found in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation after fleeing sectarian bloodshed.
The members of the persecuted Muslim minority were still shaken after a grueling, 25-day journey at sea — but were grateful to find themselves in a country where they felt at least a little at home, despite there being no chance of a normal life for them there.
“Indonesia, Muslim country, good,” said Muhammad Yunus, 25, in halting English, after praying at the immigration detention center in the town of Lhokseumawe.
But while the population at large is accepting of the increasing number of Rohingya washing up in Indonesia, authorities have not extended the same warm welcome.
Although President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has publicly expressed backing for the stateless minority, Rohingya who make it to Indonesia can end up living in legal limbo for years.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and as sectarian violence has escalated in the past year they have fled in increasing numbers.
As other countries in Asia struggle to deal with them, the flow of Rohingya arrivals in Indonesia is increasing.
After several incidents where Thailand was accused of pushing them back out to sea, 2,000 Rohingya landed earlier this year and have been detained in refugee camps. Bangkok has said it is unable to accept more, while Malaysia says it is reaching capacity.
Most Rohingya do not initially view Indonesia as their final destination and hope to use it as a stopping point en route to Australia, where more than 220 have arrived on asylum seeker boats over the past year.
Once in Indonesia, many Rohingya are held in prison-like detention centers for long periods while their cases are processed.
Those granted refugee status by the United Nations are considered the lucky ones but enjoy few rights as Indonesia has not signed a key UN convention on refugees. It will not accept them as permanent citizens and they cannot work or study as they wait to be resettled.
At a refugee housing complex in Medan, on Sumatra, Rohana Fetikileh looks haunted as she contemplates the turmoil that has rocked the state of Rakhine, from where she fled in 2010.
Rakhine was the site of two outbreaks of deadly sectarian unrest between Rohingya and Buddhists in Myanmar last year. Since then, several further episodes of communal unrest across Myanmar have tempered international optimism about the country’s dramatic political reforms as it emerges from decades of military rule.
“If Indonesia accepted us, then we’d stay,” Fetikileh told AFP, clutching her 11-month-old son in her arms as other refugee children played nearby.
“As long as we can work and there is a future for our kids,” added the 28-year-old mother of four.
Those given “Refugee” status are given some help from the UN: basic housing, schooling for their children and a 1.25 million rupiah ($128) monthly allowance per person.
But most refugees spend their days cooped up in basic community housing, with little to do.
“We can’t do anything here,” said Zahid Husein, 26, who has been been waiting for resettlement more than 11 years, having passed through Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.
“We can’t study, if we want to go shopping we can’t… without being detained again,” he said.
With only 1 percent of refugees globally ever resettled, according to UN data, prospects for Rohingya are bleak. Australia had said it aimed to take around 600 refugees who are in Indonesia in the 12 months to June as part of the expansion of its humanitarian refugee program, but that number does not include those who had come from Myanmar.
Many make it to Australia by boarding rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia.
Critics argue that Indonesia has failed to change its policies despite supportive rhetoric and the increasingly desperate state that the Rohingya are arriving in.
Authorities have publicly backed the Rohingya on many occasions — Jakarta pledged $1 million to help those displaced in violence in Rakhine last year and president Yudhoyono raised the issue on a recent visit to Myanmar.
There have also been growing signs of public anger about the Rohingya’s plight.
In April, a plot to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta was uncovered, and the same day Islamic hardliners marched on the mission urging “jihad in Myanmar” to avenge Muslim deaths.
So far this year, the United Nations has registered 360 arrivals of Rohingya in Indonesia, up from just 30 for the whole of 2010.
While developing countries rarely settle refugees, Jakarta Legal Aid director Febi Yonesta said Indonesia should consider doing so anyway, especially in the case of stateless Rohingya.
“We have the space, the economy is booming, why not?” he said.
Indonesia has long promised to sign the UN convention, but missed its own deadline in 2009 and observers believe there is little chance it will make a new deadline of 2014.
However, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the failure to sign the convention was simply down to a “backlog of priorities”.
“We have welcomed the Rohingya — we are not in the practice of pushing them back,” he told AFP.
But warm words may not be enough to help a minority denied citizenship in Myanmar and desperately searching for a home.
At the Lhokseumawe center, Mohammad Zuhar bin Sayed Alam explained how he fled Sittwe, in Rakhine, after Buddhists sealed off his mosque and he became too scared to walk down the street.
The 30-year-old broke down in tears as he showed two tiny photos of the sister and wife he had been forced to leave behind.