Rohingya Refugees in Indonesia: Off the Boat Yet Still Adrift

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The alleged rape of a Rohingya woman in the Indonesian city of Medan led to violent clashes between Myanmar refugees that left eight dead. Jelte ten Holt speaks with Siti*, who claims to be the victim, to shed light on the dire situation for some Rohingyas who have managed to escape Myanmar.

File photo for illustration purposes only: This photograph taken on March 2, 2013, shows a Rohingya refugee who was among two boatloads of asylum seekers carrying 184 people from Myanmar who were rescued by Indonesian fishermen in late February. Indonesia is expecting an influx of Rohingya as Thai authorities crack down on refugees entering their country. The UN considers the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic group, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, while Myanmar views its roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, denying them citizenship. Buddhist–Muslim unrest in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine has left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced since June 2012. AFP Photo / Chaideer Mahyuddin
File photo for illustration purposes only: This photograph taken on March 2, 2013, shows a Rohingya refugee who was among two boatloads of asylum seekers carrying 184 people from Myanmar who were rescued by Indonesian fishermen in late February. Indonesia is expecting an influx of Rohingya as Thai authorities crack down on refugees entering their country. The UN considers the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic group, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, while Myanmar views its roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, denying them citizenship. Buddhist–Muslim unrest in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine has left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced since June 2012. AFP Photo / Chaideer Mahyuddin

‘The third time there were three men. Two men, armed with a knife and a screwdriver, threatened me, while the third man raped me,’ says 23-year-old Siti, her voice flat, tears of emotion welling up in her eyes. ‘Other women saw it happen, but did nothing. They only looked.’

Aadil*, 36, tells me how only that very morning the immigration police had rounded up the men responsible for raping Siti the first two times, ‘slapped them twice’, and considered that punishment enough. And Siti wasn’t the only victim, according to Aadil, who says they raped another woman and molested a third. He claims that the other refugees from Myanmar raped Siti the third time to exact revenge for the Rohingya reporting them to the police. ‘After they raped her those men walked around shouting, “Why do you report us to immigration? Why don’t you fight with us?” The Buddhists called us animals, spat on the floor, and insulted us,’ says Aadil.

On April 5th tensions escalated at the detention centre in Medan, when a much larger group of Rohingya attacked the 11 Buddhists they held responsible, killing eight. Police detained 21 suspects, including a brother of one woman who was attacked, and the husband of another. ‘Please help us free our husbands and brothers from police custody,’ says Siti, ‘We came from Myanmar to escape from problems, but we have problems here as well!’

The Push to Exile

She explains how her home in Myanmar was attacked during sectarian riots in June 2012 in Rakhine state. Her house was burnt down, she says, forcing her and her friends to flee; eventually they were placed in a camp for internally displaced persons inside Myanmar. She claims they received only 50 percent of their allotted rations, while those in charge of the camp took the rest. And they weren’t allowed to leave, or work. They were simply expected to wait, she says, even while there was no end to the violence in Myanmar in sight. ‘They tell us that we can go home when our country is safe, but our country is broken!’ says Aadil.

Eventually, seeing no other way out, she and her friends fled – like so many others – on a rickety boat, hoping to make their way to Australia. After 25 days adrift at sea with dwindling supplies, they landed in Indonesia and have been there ever since. Though they might get a little more food or a little more money, the risk of being physically attacked and raped means they feel that their situation has not improved.

It doesn’t look like they will be able to leave anytime soon, either – certainly not if Aadil’s story is anything to go by. He has been in the UNHCR camp for three years now, waiting to be resettled. He tells me how they wait for any kind of news, but are told nothing. They are left in limbo. At the time of this interview, Aadil tells me the UNHCR representative hadn’t been in contact with them for weeks.

‘People from other countries, like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, will normally be resettled in two years. None of us have been resettled. Why is that?’ he asks me. ‘They say, “Because the skin of your hand is different you don’t get allowed into Australia or New Zealand or any third country.” But Sri Lankans are not white either, so why are they processed and not us? They give no answer.’

The Making of Refugees

Aadil thinks it’s because the Rohingya, unlike populations of other countries, have no representatives in government and few organisations that can stand up for them – a plausible claim, as it takes a country and institutions to get proper representation. The Rohingya don’t have a country. They’ve been persecuted, had their rights curtailed, and have been suppressed and ignored for as long as any of them can remember. Some blame religious differences, others to misplaced resentment from the colonial days when the British brought in Indian Muslims and gave them the best jobs.

It certainly can’t be because the Rohingya don’t belong in the area. They have long lived in the region – somewhere between four and seven centuries, longer than both Myanmar and Bangladesh have existed. Now, both countries claim that the Rohingya don’t belong within their nation and that they are the responsibility of the other country. Having washed their hands of them, officials seem not to feel the need to protect these people, even when their own populations take up arms against them. In Myanmar, Rohingya have been attacked, driven from their homes, have their land confiscated and have their rights curtailed, even while what few they do have are ignored. Most don’t even have citizenship – they are stateless.

The situation has worsened in recent years as Myanmar has started opening up to the world. Elements of the majority Buddhist population, who had previously been oppressed by the military, now use their newfound freedom to visit similar persecution onto the Rohingya. Buddhist monks, who in 2007 tried to overthrow the military dictatorship in what became known as the Saffron Revolution, now help to organise and provoke the very protests and riots that target the Rohingya groups. Ironically, it is now the armed forces, previously responsible for persecuting the Rohingya, that stand as their protectors – a role they seem reluctant to play. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in these last few years alone and over a hundred thousand have been displaced.

For many like Siti and Aadil, there seems to be only one option: to leave Myanmar and attempt a new life elsewhere. Their desperation drives them to pay large sums of money to get a one-way trip on a fishing boat. Sometimes the boats sink and people drown; other times the passengers onboard end up in the clutches of human traffickers. The people I spoke with in Medan were ‘lucky’ enough only to get blown off course. Now they remain stranded here, waiting for an opportunity to be resettled.

Waiting Is No Game

While in Indonesia they are expected not to make any waves. They are supposed to wait quietly for news on resettlement, while their lives slowly trickle away. ‘We get some money, some lessons, but we are not allowed to work and are expected to wait. We get no information and we don’t get resettled,’ laments Aadil. ‘We feel like we’re not the same like other refugees, we get less help. When other refugees get ill they get to go to the clinic, but we don’t get to go. If we need medicine, we must pay ourselves. And our rooms are not as good – a family with a baby from another country gets two rooms, while we only get one, even if we have two or three babies.’

Still, they try for the most part to be as quiet as they can. When their own women are raped, however, it becomes a different story – the result, according to Aadil, is that 21 of them now face a dark future of 12 years in an Indonesian jail for their roles in the violence. ‘We just want to get on with our lives and start fresh,’ says Aadil. For those in jail, however, that dream seems to be receding into the distant future. And even if they are resettled, for Siti and her friends that fresh start may now forever be out of reach.

 

* Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees

Check out Aquila Style’s Eid Issue (August 2012) for in-depth look at the Myanmar unrest.

In your first tablet edition of Aquila Style, get to know and love Fabulous Muslimah: Khawlah bint al-Azwar. This woman warrior fought for the freedom of her fellow women, as well as children and men, long before the term ‘Girl Power’ was coined. Victorious in another kind of battle is Kulsoom Abdullah, who fought for and won the right of Muslim women to compete in weightlifting while covered. But this is not to say that we’ve won every fight. Take a look at Rohingya: In a State of Limbo and Ramadhan Restricted in Xinjiang to learn more about two ongoing struggles that Muslim face. No doubt, we still have more challenges to overcome.
In your first tablet edition of Aquila Style, get to know and love Fabulous Muslimah: Khawlah bint al-Azwar. This woman warrior fought for the freedom of her fellow women, as well as children and men, long before the term ‘Girl Power’ was coined.
Victorious in another kind of battle is Kulsoom Abdullah, who fought for and won the right of Muslim women to compete in weightlifting while covered.
But this is not to say that we’ve won every fight. Take a look at Rohingya: In a State of Limbo and Ramadan Restricted in Xinjiang to learn more about two ongoing struggles that Muslim face. No doubt, we still have more challenges to overcome.
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