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 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 Feb. 2 after three weeks aboard a small 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 loaded with about 200 Rohingya refugees landed in Sabang, on the northern tip of Aceh, where they are now being held at a Navy station. Several more boats were found by the Indian coast guard carrying almost 400 Rohingya.
Research by nongovernment 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 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 seek work in 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 private human rights group. There are fears, however, that many more Rohingya from Bangladesh and Myanmar were originally abandoned by the Thais and are still missing.
“It is difficult to say what the exact numbers are. 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,” said Chris Lewa, an expert on Rohingya issues who heads the Arakan Project. Researchers for the Arakan Project have managed to interview refugees from five of the six boats rescued.
“What does seem clear, 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,” she said.
This week, after months of delays, the United Nations has begun the process of “status determination” for the 391 men being held in Idi Rayeuk and Sabang. The process, a series of interviews with individual 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.
At the same time, on the resort island of Bali, leaders from around Southeast Asia, including from Myanmar, are beginning discussions about regional migrants, which will include discussions on the plight of the Rohingya.
Indonesia, which analysts have praised for taking a leadership role with issues like human rights, disaster reconstruction and other issues involving Myanmar, fears a flood of thousands of Rohingya to its shores if the men in Aceh are allowed to stay.
The United Nations estimates that about 723,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, where the military regime considers them foreigners and denies them citizenship, passports or the right to own land. There are also hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya in Myanmar live mostly in the northern Rahkine State and in the past fled through bordering Bangladesh and into the Middle East. But new travel restrictions imposed by the Bangladesh government have forced the Rohingya to find alternative destinations like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Rohingya of Myanmar are one of the most vulnerable minorities in a severely impoverished country.
“Indonesia is trying to play a leadership role in this situation,” said Lilianne Fan, a humanitarian worker who has worked in Aceh and Myanmar and is now advising the Acehnese governor.“Compared to other regional governments, the Indonesians have responded very well, especially since they have engaged international organizations,” she said.
The whole process of status determination and the subsequent negotiations that will need to take place between Myanmar and Indonesia could take many more months. Meanwhile, the few aid organizations working in Idi Rayeuk are concerned that the camp is not equipped to house the refugees for that long.
The men were greeted generously by the local Acehnese, many of whom live in abject poverty themselves but can relate to the Rohingya’s situation. Many Acehnese here have family members who were forced to flee a separatist conflict that raged in Aceh for 30 years until a peace agreement was reached in 2005. Idi Rayeuk, in fact, was once a central launching point for Acehnese trying to flee the country.
“The support has been unreal and an inspiration for the rest of the world,” said Sara Henderson, president of the Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, one of the only international nongovernment organizations working with the Rohingya refugees in Aceh. “They are still giving free fish to the camp when they have barely enough to eat themselves.”
But the generosity of the local Acehnese and the local government is nowhere near enough, Ms. Henderson said. The men still live in tents and are forced to walk around wet, muddy ground. Sanitation, food and water remain basic and security is almost non-existent. Seven men, in fact, fled the camp early Monday morning but were all later apprehended by the Indonesian military.
“The ones who tried to escape said that they were frightened they were going to be deported,” said Ms. Henderson. “We have many times verbally and in writing brought up the lack of security, but it has gotten us nowhere.”
Ms. Fan added that the Rohingya here were in danger of “falling through the cracks” and that a lack of interpreters has created an atmosphere of confusion and fear that probably led the seven men to try and escape.
The Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, which was founded in response to the 2005 tsunami in Aceh, has been pressing for donations to help coordinate the camp and provide necessary logistics. The local government has offered to provide a larger plot of land if money can be raised for necessities like temporary barracks, sanitation and food.“The local community and the government do not have the funds to support a refugee camp of 198 men,” Ms. Henderson said.