Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees are escaping impoverished conditions and ethnic Rohingya are fleeing religious persecution. Human traffickers masquerading as smugglers promised them safe passage to Malaysia, but then held them for ransom on the border between Thailand and Malaysia until their families paid up huge sums of money.
Thailand has recently cracked down on human trafficking rings, especially after finding mass graves in the jungles on the border with Malaysia. Because of this, the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments refused to allow smuggling ships to land on their shores, causing thousands of refugees to find themselves adrift at sea on boats with little resources or food.
However, the people of Aceh, a city in Indonesia, could not ignore the suffering of these refugees. They allowed the boats to land on their shores, defying their government and welcoming the burden of 2,000 starving, impoverished people. Many Acehnese have suffered decades of political turmoil as well as the 2004 tsunami that caused immeasurable damage. Many refugees settled at a port called Kuala Langsa, which is currently housing 425 Bangladeshi and 231 Rohingya migrants. “I feel that they are part of our family, part of Acehnese society, because they have suffered as much as us. It’s better if they stay permanently here,” says a Aceh native and restaurant owner who has provided meals to the refugees. Many agree, saying Aceh is the safest place for them to settle.
The citizens of Aceh even held a concert to help raise funds for the recent migrants. The event was organized by Rafly, a local singer and political figure. It was also a Pemulia Jamee, or traditional Indonesian ceremony to honor guests. Rafly has remarked that he hopes the migrants stay in Aceh.
Before successful landing in Aceh, migrants say they were turned away by the Thai government three times and the Malaysian government twice. The second refusal by the Malaysian government came with a threat that it would bomb their ship if they did not turn away.
Back in Bangladesh, prospects for change are bleak. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina calls the Rohingya “mentally sick” and “tainting the image of the country” by escaping their government-controlled impoverishment, which limits their access to medical care and education. Rohyinga people are Muslim and reside in Rakhine state in western Myanmar. 140,000 remain in tent camps since their hometowns were destroyed by state-sanctioned fundamentalist Buddhists who view the Rohingya as Bangladeshi settlers.
Shortly after Aceh welcomed its refugees, Malaysia and Indonesia issued a statement saying the two countries would provide food and shelter to the 7,000 people who remained floating on the Straits of Malacca, provided these people seek permanent homes after a year.
– Jenny Wheeler