Unlike their government, Indonesians welcome Rohingya refugees

Rohingya migrants jump to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015.
Christophe Archambault

LANGSA, Indonesia — Marzuki Rami couldn’t believe his eyes when he first caught a glimpse of what was going on, some 50 meters from his boat. Like every other day, the 40-year-old fisherman was at sea that morning. It was two weeks ago.

“Around 5 a.m. we saw this big boat. There were people jumping off it, some already in the water. When they saw us, they started swimming towards us,” Rami remembered.

He admits he was a little worried at first. “There were so many of them,” he said.

Still, he and the rest of his crew didn’t hesitate. “We just grabbed them. One by one. They were a lot of people injured, who had been beaten up, some were fainting. And some, we lost sight of them. It was really dark.”

Many of them were Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar that is among the most persecuted groups in the world. There were also Bangladeshis, fleeing abject poverty at home.

Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, and restricts their ability to travel and marry. They are a stateless people. Hundreds of thousands are forcibly moved into camps in Myanmar, unless they can afford to pay human smugglers to take them away on a boat. Many who do escape end up in death camps run by human traffickers in Thailand.

Rami’s red wooden trawler filled up fast. He tried to contact the sea police but no one answered. So he called some other fishermen. Six boats came and between them they managed to rescue 600 desperate people.

The fishermen all knew they weren’t supposed to help. At the time, the Indonesian government — just like the governments in Thailand, Malaysia and Australia — were adhering to a cold policy of towing the migrant boats back out to sea in the hopes they’d land somewhere, anywhere else. Human Rights Watch called it a human game of ping-pong.

We had to do something

The migrants had been at sea for weeks, some of them months, with barely anything to eat and drink. Pictures circulated of migrants jumping into the water to grab scarce food thrown from helicopters.

The Indonesian government, however, said that if it took in the Rohingya migrants, many more would follow. And that would create “social issues.” It warned the fishermen against helping them.

But here in the province of Aceh, on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the everyday people who would be most affected by an influx of refugees didn’t agree with their government.

Rami and the other fishermen said they could not just stand by while the authorities did nothing. In total, the fishermen of Aceh have rescued some 1,500 migrants since the beginning of May.

Rami said he would do it again.

“They looked so weak, so hungry,” he remembered. He and other fishermen were able to communicate with some of the migrants who spoke Malay, a language similar to Indonesian. “They told us they had to drink their own urine because they didn’t have any water.”  

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Nurden Ali, another fisherman, said that the Indonesians gave the migrants rice but didn’t have enough plates. “They were just holding the hot rice in their hands,” he said.  

“We’re all humans, we need to help each other,” Rami said.

The sentiment was the same on land. When news came that migrants had arrived, many rushed to the port, where the city government has been forced to accommodate those who have been rescued.

In the warehouses turned into dorms, giant piles of donated clothes are a testament to the locals’ generosity. Nursia, a 30-year-old shopkeeper who lives a few kilometers away from the port, said everyone felt “we had to do something.”

She said it was the right thing to do. “We have to be compassionate,” she said.

In Langsa’s city center, Andi, 24, pointed to piles of food and clothes outside a volunteer tent in a small park. He said donations have been abundant, and haven’t stopped since the migrants arrived.

“People feel we have to help fellow Muslims,” he said. Most Acehnese are very religious — this is the only Indonesian province that has implemented Islamic law — and Langsa people are known to be particularly pious.

It’s not the first time Aceh has taken in Rohingya migrants. In 2009, several boats carrying hundreds of people landed here. At that time too, migrants were rescued by fishermen, and welcomed by the local population. Many are still waiting for resettlement or repatriation.

Human rights groups believe thousands of starving people are still stranded at sea, abandoned by smugglers. Indonesian authorities say the newly arrived will be allowed to stay for a maximum of a year, while their relocation or repatriation is figured out.

In the meantime, the international community is hoping to address the root of the problem. At a meeting on Friday organized in Bangkok by the Thai government, the focus was on mostly Buddhist Myanmar and its refusal to grant the Muslim Rohingya citizenship. The United Nations called on Myanmar to remove restrictions on the Rohingya and grant them basic freedoms.

But Myanmar has so far refused. Incredibly, the country outright denied at the Bangkok meeting that it is the root cause of the problem. “This issue of illegal immigration of boat people, you cannot single out my country,” Myanmar’s representative said, according to The New York Times.

Myanmar, which has opened up recently after decades of North Korea-style isolation, is expecting global aid and investment in return for its economic and political reform. It’s unclear if the government’s treatment of the Rohingya will have any affect on that influx of cash.

At the camp in Aceh, the migrants are just happy that, for at least this brief moment, they are safe. Alongside the Indonesian volunteers, they sang and danced. They clapped their hands to the beats of music. And they smiled.