Indonesia Suspects Human Trafficking is Behind Increasing Number of Rohingya Refugees

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Police officers escort suspected human traffickers who were arrested, at the local police headquarters, Aceh province, Indonesia 8 December 2023. (Photo: AP)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s government blames a surge in human trafficking for the increasing number of Rohingya Muslims that have entered the country over the past few weeks, the Indonesian president said Friday, 8 December.

President Joko Widodo said in a televised news conference that he received “reports about the increasing number of Rohingya refugees entering Indonesian territory, especially Aceh Province.”

“There are strong suspicions that there is involvement of a criminal human trafficking network in this flow of refugees,” he said, adding that the ”government will take firm action against perpetrators of human trafficking.”

Police said they arrested three Aceh residents for human trafficking on Friday, 8 December. They are suspected of helping 30 Rohingya refugees leave their camp in the city of Lhokseumawe.

The suspects were given IDR 1.8 million (USD 115) to smuggle the refugees from the camp to the city of Medan in North Sumatra province, said Henki Ismanto, the Lhokseumawe police chief.

Since August 2017, about 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to camps in Bangladesh, following a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of Rohingya homes, and international courts are considering whether their actions constituted genocide.

Most of the refugees leaving by sea attempt to reach Muslim-dominated Malaysia, hoping to find work there. Thailand turns them away or detains them. Indonesia, another Muslim-dominated country where many end up, also puts them in detention.

Since November, more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived by boat in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh.

The latest arrivals, a group of 139 refugees, including women and children, landed on Sunday, followed by protests from local residents who demanded they be relocated. Aceh residents have twice blocked the landing of hundreds of Rohingya refugees on the shores of their province.

Widodo said his government would provide temporary assistance for the Rohingya refugees while still prioritizing the interests of local residents and working together with international organizations to solve the problem of the Rohingya refugees in the country.

The aid group Save the Children said in a 22 November report that 465 Rohingya children had arrived in Indonesia by boat the week before that. The organization also said the number of refugees taking to the seas had increased by more than 80 percent.

Save the Children said more than 3,570 Rohingya Muslims had left Bangladesh and Myanmar this year, up from nearly 2,000 in the same period in 2022. Of those who left this year, 225 are known to have died or gone missing, with many others unaccounted for.

An estimated 400 Rohingya Muslims are believed to be aboard two boats adrift in the Andaman Sea without adequate supplies and could die if more is not done to rescue them, according to the U.N. refugee agency and aid workers.

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By Edna Tarigan and Rahmat Mirza, Associated Press