In late May 2015, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees were stranded on the open ocean. The governments of nearby countries didn’t want them. Amidst this humanitarian crisis and fatal government hesitation, local Acehnese Indonesian fishermen saved thousands of refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas and Bangladeshi’s have fled their native homeland; the Rohingyas face political persecution that mirrors Apartheid South Africa, and Bangladeshis face seemingly inescapable poverty. Over 120,000 Rohingyas have left in the past three years, and just this year, 25,000 Rohingyas have fled.
In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the Rohingyas are persecuted, and have been since the 1970s. They are not recognized as citizens and are “subjected to forced labour, have no land rights, and are heavily restricted,” says BBC. This March, the government took away the Rohingya’s right to vote.
The Rohingyas are an Islamic ethnic group. They are said to be descended from Muslim traders who settled in the region over 1,000 years ago, but the Myanmar government persists the Rohingyas are actually Bengali migrants— subjecting them to severe inequality.
It is due to this severe oppression that thousands of Rohingyas have fled Myanmar via boat. Rohingyas have paid smugglers in the past few years to transport them to safer countries, like Indonesia or Malaysia.
This year, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries that Rohingyas flee to cracked down on the influx of refugees, refusing to admit them.
For this reason, many refugees were left stranded by smugglers in the middle of the ocean. Other smugglers turned out to be traffickers, who held the migrants hostage in the ocean, attempting to pressure impoverished family members into paying for their stranded loved ones.
None of the countries in the region were willing to help them, and governments told local fishermen not to help stranded refugees.
“The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
Thailand and Indonesia turned away boats from their shores. Malaysia ordered its navy to keep the boats away. The United Nations has issued a statement that it is “appalled” by the foreign policy of these nations.
Chris Lewa, an advocate for the Rohingya activist group, described the attitude of neighboring countries as “extremely unwelcoming. Unlike European countries – who at least make an effort to stop North African migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean – Myanmar’s neighbours are reluctant to provide any assistance.”
Human Rights Watch accused Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia of playing “human ping pong” with boats by refusing to let people in and by pushing boats back out to international waters.
Thousands of boat people were stranded at sea with little food and water and no place to land. “For more than two months we were in the boat, we were only given little food and we were beaten when we asked for more,” said Mohamad Ali, a Bangladeshi migrant to BBC.
Mohammad Idiris, a 25-year-old from Myanmar was held on a crowded ship for 6 months, said he was “beaten regularly by human traffickers who demanded a ransom from his parents that they couldn’t pay,” reported the IRIN. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this. If I had known, I would have stayed in Myanmar. We feel happy here, because the Acehnese people are treating us as brothers, but we are still worried about our families in Myanmar.”
Despite government wishes, Indonesians from the Aceh region rescued around 2,000 stranded boat people. “We helped them because they needed help. What is more human than that?” said Mansur, a Acehnese fisherman, in an interview with The Guardian.
The people of Aceh themselves have suffered intense violence and devastation in the past; they were caught in violence between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels, as well as the tsunami of 2004 in the early 2000s. For this reason, the Aceh people were very welcoming.
The fishermen worked together, pulling refugees from boat to boat, taking multiple trips and providing food and water on shore. Suryadi, an Aceh fisherman, told The Guardian, “We helped out of solidarity. If we find someone in the ocean we have to help them no matter who they are. The police did not like us helping but we could not avoid it. Our sense of humanity was higher. So we just helped with the limited resources that we had at the time.”
Aceh even put on a concert to raise money for the refugees. Rafly, a popular local singer, performed “Pemulia Jamee,” a traditional Acehnese ceremony, to honor guests. Rafly is also a senator, and plans to advocate for the refugees to stay in Aceh in the future.
“I really wish they will stay permanently in Aceh. I have lobbied the governor of Aceh on this matter and will raise it with the head of the senate,” he tells IRIN.
The future for the Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees is uncertain. Bangladeshis may be returned to Bangladesh once they are identified, though they return to an unwelcome government. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called the stranded boat people “mentally sick” for leaving, and claimed they are “tainting the image of the country.”
Myanmar recently created a program to give citizenship back to the Rohyingas; however, it forces the Rohingyas to list their ethnicity as Bengali, so it is heavily opposed. The Rohingyas are not welcome in Myanmar. Today around 140,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar live in camps; they cannot return to their villages, which were burned by Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 violence that killed over 200 people.
After a large amount of chaos, conflict and devastating waiting, Malaysia and Indonesia finally agreed to let refugees shelter on their shores, as long as they are relocated within a year. However, this was only after local Indonesian fishermen went directly against the wishes of their government to help save extremely vulnerable refugees.
– Margaret Mary Anderson