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LANGSA, ACEH – Baylal Hassan, a 22-year-old Rohingya man from Kyauktaw in Arakan State, arrived at the Indonesian coast in early May after a perilous journey through the Andaman Sea that had lasted more than two months. He lives now in one of the four refugee camps in Aceh, northern Indonesia, that shelter around 2,000 boat people who arrived over the last month.
Hassan left Arakan to join some relatives living in Malaysia, where he hoped to find a job and send money to his family back in Burma. He was travelling in a boat with 580 people, 330 of them Rohingya, and the rest migrants from Bangladesh, when the crackdown on human trafficking launched by Thailand in early May made the crew abandon the ship to its fate not far from the coast of Indonesia.
This boat arrived safely, but three others had to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen.
“We didn’t even know who these people were, but we had to save them,” said TeungkuTahe, an influential community leader from the city of Langsa who coordinated the rescue operations, and whose brother was among the fishermen who brought the survivors to the shore.
The Acehnese fishermen faced opposition from the Indonesian government, whose policy at the time was to push back any boat approaching its coasts.
“We received SMSs telling us not to save the boats if we saw them, but our obligation is to take to the shore anybody who is in the sea, even if it is a corpse or an animal what we find, we have the obligation to save it,” says Mr. Tahe, who is also an advisor to Panglima Laot, an Acehnese customary maritime association, in Langsa.
Back in the camp, Hassan says that he is torn between his desire to continue his journey to Malaysia and join his relatives there, on one hand, or whether to stay in a place where he feels welcome for the first time in his life.
“I feel very happy and grateful here because they have received us so well. We can feel the love of the Acehnese people,” he told DVB in the cramped building where he lives with the rest of Rohingya men.
The camp is called Kuala Cangkoi and it lies along the coast, near the town of Lhoksukon. It shelters 330 Rohingya asylum seekers (the Bangladeshi migrants who arrived on the same boat are being held in an immigration center while they await a deportation that might take months). Men are separated from women and children and live in a cramped old warehouse not far from the coast. The conditions in this and other camps are far from perfect, and have been criticised by the IOM and other international agencies as unsanitary.
Regardless of the conditions in these hastily assembled camps, several Rohingya asylum seekers interviewed recently in Aceh agreed with Hassan on his feeling that the Acehnese are receiving them with open arms.
“These people are treating us as brothers,” said Mohammad Idiris, 25, a Rohingya who arrived with Hassan after being held for ransom in another boat for more than six months.
Other camps are closed to visitors, but there are no walls or barbed wire fences in Kuala Cangkoi. Acehnese families from the area go in droves to the camp to visit the Rohingya and make donations, and some even invite them to lunch in their houses.
“The people of Aceh have themselves suffered waves of tragedy, from decades of war and forced displacement to the massive tsunami that devastated the province in 2004. Because of this, they empathise with the boat people, because they remember a time when they were forced to flee their homes. They also remember the way they were helped by people from all over the world after the tsunami, and it gives them great pride now to be able to help others,” explains Lilianne Fan, an anthropologist with 16 years of involvement with Aceh and co-founder of Geutanyoe Foundation, a local organisation currently working in the camps.
The future of the Rohingya in Aceh is still uncertain. On 20 May, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to receive the 7,000 to 8,000 boat people estimated to be adrift. After pushing them back to the sea for two weeks, the two ASEAN countries also agreed “to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community.” The US State Department has announced it is willing to take the Rohingya into its territory, but it remains unclear how such a resettlement would be carried out.
It is also unclear where those sheltered in Aceh will be held during a process which may take over a year. There have been different suggestions, including accommodating them in an uninhabited island near Sumatra, but the Indonesian government has not come out with a plan for them yet. Nevertheless, there is talk that the authorities could take them to Medan, a city in North Sumatra where Rohingya people arriving in Aceh were accommodated between 2009 and 2013.
Mr. Tahe, the community leader from Langsa, complains that the Acehnese are not being given a voice on the issue, and claims that they are ready to shelter them.
“We want to speak with everybody on the matter – with the Indonesian government and with the international agencies. We want to tell them not to take the Rohingya out of Aceh. After we rescued them, we gave them food, we shaved them, we washed them, and we can take care of them now,” he explained to DVB.
“We don’t trust the government in Jakarta or the international organisations. We, the poor fishermen of Aceh, were the first people to respond to the crisis and save these people, and now they come and want to make decisions without us. The government in Jakarta is not sincere about helping the Rohingya; if they were, they would have helped them from the beginning,” he said.
“Now we are pleading to the Acehnese and the Indonesian governments to allow the Rohingya to stay, but we will organise protests if they decide to take them out,” he added.
Moreover, Mr. Tahe claims that the Acehnese “are ready to take the Rohingya permanently, as our own brothers. We have enough land and resources for them. We can make them work and provide for them.”
Carlos Sardiña Galache is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.