Indonesian navy pushes back Rohingya refugee boat off Aceh

Move comes as resentment grows among some people in region about sudden influx of boat arrivals.

An aerial view of a boat amid waves crashing on the beach and dozens of passengers ashore.
More than 1,500 Rohingya have arrived in Aceh since November [File: Hidayatullah Tajuddin/Reuters]

The Indonesian navy has pushed back a boat carrying Rohingya refugees as it approached the coast of Aceh amid resentment among some residents about a sudden increase in boat arrivals.

The military said the coastguard first detected the wooden vessel entering Indonesian waters on Wednesday, before the navy ship KRI Bontang-907 located the boat about 63 nautical miles (117km) off Aceh on the northwestern tip of the archipelago and drove it out, “ensuring that the boat did not return to Indonesian waters,” the navy said in a statement posted in its website.

Military spokesperson Nugraha Gumilar said it was not known how many people were on board. They are suspected to be Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority from Myanmar who were forced into neighbouring Bangladesh by a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that is now the subject of a genocide investigation.

More than 1,500 Rohingya refugees have landed in Indonesia on barely seaworthy wooden boats since November, according to data from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the sudden jump in arrivals has aroused growing hostility among people in Aceh.

Indonesia has appealed to the international community for help and intensified patrols of its waters, promising to crack down on suspected human traffickers it says are involved in the latest wave of boat arrivals.

On Wednesday, a mob of students stormed the basement of a local community hall in Banda Aceh, the Acehnese capital, where about 137 Rohingya were taking shelter and called for the group to be deported.

Many of the refugees are in poor health after weeks at sea usually with insufficient supplies of food and water.

The UNHCR said it was “deeply disturbed to see a mob attack on a site sheltering vulnerable refugee families”.

Indonesia, although not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, was once known for providing a safe haven to the Rohingya even as neighbouring Malaysia and Thailand pushed them away.

But the mood has soured this year, especially in Aceh, where some residents claim the Rohingya behave badly and create a burden on society.

Muslims make up nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 277 million people, and Aceh is the only state in the archipelago to follow Islamic law.

The growing hostility towards the Rohingya has put pressure on President Joko Widodo’s government to take action.

“This is not an easy issue, this is an issue with enormous challenges,” foreign minister Retno Marsudi told reporters.

The sailing season usually runs from November to April, when the seas are calmer.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya currently live in sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh while those remaining in Myanmar are denied citizenship and confined to internal displacement camps where their movements are restricted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies