The Platform

Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh. (Allison Joyce/UN Women)

There’s some pushback from Indonesians in welcoming Rohingya refugees.

In Indonesia’s Aceh, the arrival of Rohingya refugees has sparked heated discourse across various social media platforms. Acehnese resistance to welcoming these refugees is palpable, accompanied by a critique of the perceived lackluster response from maritime security and local governance that resulted in the refugees’ successful landfall.

The Aceh community’s stance, which might seem harsh to outsiders, is rooted in deep-seated trauma from past experiences with the Rohingya, whose interactions with local communities did not go well. This history motivates their current rejection.

The Rohingya’s flight to Indonesia stems from dire circumstances in Myanmar, where they face ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. Desperate for sanctuary, they undertake hazardous sea voyages, often at the mercy of human smugglers, in a fraught bid for a better life.

A Rohingya refugee in Aceh disclosed the steep price for this perilous journey, underscoring their aspiration for improved living conditions in Indonesia. However, not all attempts are successful, as evidenced by recent arrests in Bangladesh of those endeavoring to reach Indonesian shores.

For many Rohingya, Indonesia represents a hopeful alternative to their strife-torn origins or other refugee camps. Their goal is to establish a secure and dignified existence.

With approximately 1,200 recorded Rohingya refugees in Indonesia—a number expected to rise—the concern among Indonesians, especially in Aceh, is palpable. The UNHCR’s urging of Indonesia to accept these refugees is a matter of intense debate. Ann Maymann, the UNHCR’s Chief Representative in Indonesia, has appealed for Aceh’s continued openness, emphasizing the vulnerability of the many women and children among the refugees.

Despite the UNHCR’s assurances of fully funded programs that do not burden state or regional budgets, the challenge for Aceh, and Indonesia at large, extends beyond financial considerations. It’s the apprehension of the negative impacts of unchecked behaviors of the Rohingya that fuels the local resistance.

The reticence of Indonesians to welcome Rohingya refugees again is grounded in a litany of disruptive behaviors exhibited by previous arrivals, from flouting local norms to defiance of Islamic laws in Aceh.

Acehnese generosity has been tested and, in many eyes, exploited, raising the question of whether the refugees are capitalizing on local benevolence.

Reflecting on Indonesia’s challenges, with citizens struggling in the face of inflation and providing for their own families, the national priority to assist the domestic needy overshadows the Rohingya refugee issue.

Given this context, the difficulty in persuading Indonesians to reopen their communities to Rohingya refugees is evident. Past disappointments have left a deep-seated reluctance to offer a second chance. The UNHCR’s insistence on Indonesia’s continued acceptance of Rohingya refugees, even on humanitarian grounds, does not alleviate the deep-seated concerns of the Acehnese people.

Alfira Prashanda is studying International Relations at Universitas Diponegoro with an interest in human rights, gender issues, transnational crime, and international political economy.