Breaking Ground: Indonesia Welcomes A Group of Rohingyan Muslims Stranded At Sea Despite Initial Rejection

In December, Indonesian authorities gave the green light to accept a boat of about 120 fleeing Rohingya Muslims into the country. The move comes after the group was stranded in the ocean for days right near the coast of Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh. Conditions onboard the boat were reportedly so abysmal to the point that, according to the Indonesian official Armed Wijaya, the Indonesian government felt prompted to take action. 

“The Indonesian government has decided, in the name of humanity, to accommodate the Rohingya refugees currently adrift at sea,” Wijaya said in a statement. “The decision was made after considering the emergency conditions the refugees are experiencing onboard the boat.” Despite the empathetic response from Indonesia, its government was initially adamant about accepting the Rohingya Muslims. Local officials told Agence France Presse (AFP) that Indonesian fishermen first encountered the refugees about 70 nautical miles off Indonesian shores a couple of days before. However, when alerted about the issue, military officials told Al Jazeera that they could not “simply bring them [the Rohingyans] in as refugees” due to the fact that they were not Indonesian citizens. 

The controversial decision sparked an international backlash, as it was clear that the Indonesian government fully intended to send the Rohingyans back to sea despite their dire need of help. “The Rohingya ethnic group is a vulnerable, stateless group of people that should be given protection,” the Civil Society Coalition, a coalition of nine Indonesian human rights groups, said in a statement to Al Jazeera. “As a country that upholds human rights and a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Indonesia should set an example for other countries.” 

The Rohingya people are an ethnic Muslim minority group originally hailing from Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country. The difference in religions, as well as culture and language, has always made the group victim to government discrimination since the 1970s. As the Council of Foreign Relations puts it, Myanmar has “institutionalized” discrimination through legislation, effectively restricting all aspects of life from denying citizenship to even restricting how many children Rohingyans can have. Since then, the government-sponsored oppression has only increased. 

In 2017, the group garnered international attention after the Myanmar military began attempting an ethnic cleansing on the group in response to attacks from a terrorist organization. Rohingyan villages were burned and government forces accused of mass rape, murder, and destruction. According to the CFR, a UN fact panel released a report detailing Myanmar’s “genocidal intent” to wipe out the group. The persecution has prompted a mass migration of Rohingyan Muslims to the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and Indonesia. While major powers such as the United States have sanctioned military officials and sent aid and support to the Rohingyans, the governments of the previously mentioned countries have been extremely wary of accepting them as refugees and have even sent groups back to Myanmar. 

Many human rights groups and international organizations are hoping that Indonesia’s actions can influence the rest to welcome more refugees into their country. Some have already applauded its acceptance of the group. “We are extremely grateful to the Indonesian government … it is a decision that we have not seen other governments take with regard to other boats,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative Ann Maymann told Al Jazeera. “It is an example for other countries to follow, both in the Asia Pacific region and also in other parts of the world where boats are being pushed back.” The UNHCR has already expressed its intention to assist the host country with the arrival and processing of the refugees. Indonesia’s actions have certainly been a positive win for refugee rights however, it remains to be a breakthrough case within the recently turbulent history of the Rohingyans.