Indonesia’s Poor Welcome Sea Refugees

April 18, 2009

Author: Peter Gelling

Source: The New York Times

The only solace for the almost 200 men living in a squalid refugee camp here is the freedom they now have to pray.

“In Myanmar, if we pray, we are killed,” said Alam Shah, 38, a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority, who fled the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar last year. “I’m scared they will send us back there. It is a very, very dangerous country.”

The Rohingya here were found floating at sea on Feb. 2, after having spent three weeks aboard a wooden boat with no motor, no food and no water. When they were found by an Indonesian fisherman off the coast of Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province, many were close to death.

A few months before, another boat with about 200 Rohingya refugees landed in Sabang, on the northern tip of Aceh, where they are now being held at a naval station. Several more boats were found by the Indian coast guard carrying almost 400 Rohingya.

Research by nongovernmental organizations suggests that all the refugees had passed through detention camps on islands just off the coast of Thailand. According to interviews with the refugees, the Thai military towed and abandoned at least six boats at sea between November and January, when the international news media picked up the story and the so-called push-backs were halted.

The expulsions reversed a policy in which Thailand had allowed thousands of Rohingya to land in recent years, mostly on their way to Malaysia. The Thai military had denied accusations of pushing the refugees out to sea, but Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand said in February that some boats had been towed out to sea and that he intended to investigate.

About 1,200 men are known to have been pushed out to sea, more than 300 of whom drowned, according to the Arakan Project, a nongovernmental human rights group. There are fears, however, that many more Rohingya from Bangladesh and Myanmar, formerly Burma, are still missing.

“It is difficult to say what the exact numbers are,” said Chris Lewa, an expert on Rohingya issues who runs the Arakan Project. “But based on the interviews we have done with refugees that have ended up in India and Indonesia, we think there were many more push-backs than have been confirmed.”

“What does seem clear,” Ms Lewa said, “what is consistent among all the interviews we have done with the refugees, is that they were detained on islands off the coast of Thailand before being towed out to sea and set adrift by the Thai military.”

Last week, after months of delays, the United Nations began the process of “status determination” for the 391 men being held in Idi Rayeuk and Sabang. The process, a series of interviews with refugees, will determine if they are in need of protection and can stay in Indonesia, or if they are economic migrants who should be returned to Myanmar.