Tensions rise as two more boats with over 300 Rohingya land in Indonesia

Since November, more than 1,500 refugees have arrived in Indonesia’s Aceh province, triggering anger among the locals.

Over 300 Rohingya refugees have arrived on the coast of Aceh province in Indonesia after weeks of drifting across the sea from Bangladesh.

The emaciated survivors – children, women and men – told of running out of supplies and of fearing death at sea as they landed on the unwelcoming shores of the villages of Pidie and Aceh Besar in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning.

“The boat was sinking. We had no food or water left,” told Shahidul Islam, a 34-year-old survivor, saying he had left from a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

A group of 180 refugees arrived by boat at 3am local time (20:00 GMT on Saturday) on a beach in the Pidie regency of Aceh province.

The second boat carrying 135 refugees landed in neighbouring Aceh Besar regency hours later after being adrift at sea for more than a month, while a third boat is missing.

“We just want to find somewhere safe,” one refugee told Al Jazeera at a shelter on the coast. “We knew that we might die at sea, but finally we are safe. That’s all we want for our children.”

On Sunday evening, Aceh Besar’s acting regent Muhammad Iswanto said the refugees were transferred to a temporary shelter during the visit of a United Nations representative.

“They are relocated to the camping ground by the province’s [refugee] task force. They will join other Rohingya refugees that have been there,” said the official.

Unwelcoming shores

Nearly a million Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar near its border with Myanmar, most after fleeing a military-led crackdown and alleged acts of genocide in Myanmar in 2017.

Thousands of them risk their lives each year on long and expensive sea journeys, often in flimsy boats that sail from Bangladesh, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

But the mainly Muslim minority who fled Myanmar after persecution has not found refuge in these communities, where local villagers have tried to push refugee boats back to sea.

Rohingya Indonesia
Rohingya refugees after landing in Blang Raya, Pidie, Aceh province, Indonesia [Reuters]

While the people of Aceh in Indonesia had previously welcomed refugees, tensions have been escalating as the number of arrivals has grown.

Over 1,500 Rohingya have arrived in Indonesia since last month after taking perilous journeys across the sea.

The residents in Aceh say they will neither provide funds nor supplies or shelter for the arriving Rohingya nor do they want them to stay in the area.

The local government in Pidie said earlier it would not take responsibility for providing the refugees with tents, or other basic needs, or “bear any expenses”.

‘They can’t stay here’

Rijalul Fitri, head of Blang Raya village in Aceh, said on Sunday they do not want the refugees in their village. “We stayed up all night so as not to allow them to dock, but … they arrived,” he said.

Fitri was adamant that the refugees must relocate. “They can’t stay here,” he said.

Over 100 protesters in Sabang Island in Aceh, where there is a temporary shelter, clashed with police as they called for the Rohingya refugees to be relocated.

“It’s one boat after another,” one woman told Al Jazeera.

“We are poor people, why don’t they use the money to help us? Why are they giving them food?” she said, referring to volunteers distributing food and water to the refugees.

“We reject the Rohingya,” another protester said. “We want them to be moved as soon as possible. We don’t want to catch the diseases they carry,” he said.

The UN refugee agency’s protection associate Faisal Rahman said the organisation has been trying to reassure the local communities.

“We continue to explain the situation to the people and ensure that they will not be burdened with the handling of refugees,” he said, acknowledging that designated shelters were over-capacity.

But “the government is working to provide shelter as the number of refugees arriving is very high”, Rahman said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Friday said temporary relief would be provided for refugees “with a priority on the interests of the local community”.

Indonesia’s government says it is looking for a new site to house the refugees, and has acknowledged the opposition from residents in its goal to find a sustainable solution, Al Jazeera correspondent Jessica Washington reported from Jakarta.

The UN says the difficult conditions and increase in crime in Bangladesh as well as the worsening crisis in Myanmar is the reason for the increase in the flow of refugees, with experts predicting more boats could arrive in the coming months.

“Around 75 percent of the new arrivals are women and children,” Emily Bojovic of the UN refugee agency’s Southeast Asia office told Al Jazeera.

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