Indonesia president suspects human trafficking behind increased Rohingya arrivals

Ethnic Rohingya disembarking from their boat upon landing on a beach in Ulee Madon, North Aceh, Indonesia, on Nov. 16, 2023. - AP

JAKARTA: Indonesia strongly suspects human trafficking is behind a recent increase in arrivals of Rohingya Muslims on its territory, its president said on Friday (Dec 8), promising to work with international groups to deal with the issue.

More than 1,200 Rohingya people, a persecuted minority from Myanmar, have landed ashore in Indonesia since November, according to the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) in Indonesia, prompting concern among local communities about the scale of the exodus this year.

For years many Rohingya have embarked on perilous journeys on rickety boats, hoping to reach neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh or further afield Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim majority countries. They take to the sea mostly between November and April when seas are calmer.

Indonesia has long been a safe haven for Rohingya, but the high volume of arrivals in recent weeks has seen an increase in negative sentiment on social media and some pushback from people in Aceh, the westernmost region where most landings take place.

"There is a strong suspicion that human trafficking networks are involved... Indonesia will take firm action against them," President Joko Widodo said in a livestreamed video, without elaborating.

Indonesia will also give temporary humanitarian aid to the Rohingya but keep prioritising local residents, he said.

A demonstration took place at a Rohingya shelter in Sabang in Aceh on Thursday, with local people seeking their relocation elsewhere soon, according to local media, which showed video footage of the protest.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees but has a history of taking in refugees when they arrive, earning praise from the UNHCR.

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