In May of last year, thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded at sea for weeks after the Thai and Malaysian governments cracked down on the human traffickers who were taking them to Malaysia. In dramatic scenes that made headlines all around the world, their boats were pushed back out to the open sea by the navies of Thailand and Malaysia until they were reluctantly allowed to come ashore.
In the midst of that tragedy, a group of fishermen from Aceh, a province at the north-western tip of Indonesia, decided to launch an operation to rescue two boats spotted near the coast. Defying direct orders from the Indonesian Navy, they eventually took almost 2,000 people — both Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Burma’s Arakan State and Bangladeshi migrants looking for a better life in Malaysia — to Aceh.
“We didn’t even know who these people were, but we had to save them,” Teungku Tahe, an influential community leader from the city of Langsa who coordinated the rescue operations, told DVB at that time. “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 that we find, we have the obligation to save it,” he added.
One year later, all but four Bangladeshis have been repatriated to their country of origin, and, with the help of human smugglers, most Rohingya refugees have gone to Malaysia, where many of them had relatives waiting for them.
Nevertheless, around 250 Rohingya refugees have decided to stay in four camps in Aceh, three of them in the city of Langsa, managed by the local government, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and several local and international NGOs. And the local authorities are doing their best to integrate them into Acehnese society.
“We are explaining to the local community who the Rohingya are, what their problems are and why they had to leave their country. As part of the Rohingyas’ socialization, we are using a cultural approach based on our tradition of Pemulia Jamee [“welcoming our guests”],” Suriyatno, the first assistant of the mayor of Langsa, explains to DVB. “We are encouraging the refugees to work informally with the Acehnese people in coffee shops, fishing boats, and so on, as a matter of dignity and as their human right,” he adds.
The refugees here are relatively free compared those in the detention centres in Malaysia or Thailand: They can leave the camps during the day to look for odd jobs, and the local government is even launching a program to enroll Rohingya children in the Indonesian formal education system. So far, six children have been accepted and are attending classes in a public school in Langsa. “We don’t look at them as refugees, but as human beings. We call them our guests,” explains Suriyatno.
While all of the Rohingya who spoke to DVB recently in the camps in Langsa told us that they feel welcome in Aceh, many of them expressed their desire to resettle in third countries like the United States or Canada, or to continue their journey to their intended destination: Malaysia. “We understand that the refugees didn’t [choose to] come to Indonesia, and that they want to leave. They are welcome here, but if they want to leave, that’s their choice,” says Suriyatno.
One year after organizing the rescue operations, Teungku Taher is still willing to accept the Rohingya in Aceh. “I think the local people will also benefit if they stay here, as they can work with us in the fishing boats or other places. We bonded together during the rescue, and we can understand and forgive easily each other,” he explains.
“If the Rohingyas are better here than in any other place, I think it’s better they stay here with us,” he adds.