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Bangladesh: Why are Rohingya refugees fleeing to Indonesia?

November 29, 2023

More than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims have arrived in Indonesia by boat this month. They have been fleeing Bangladesh's overcrowded refugee camps where conditions have worsened.

A large group of people wait on a beach after arriving by sea
A group of newly arrived Rohingya refugees in Aceh province Image: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP

An increasing number of Rohingya refugees are leaving the crowded camps of Cox's Bazar on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh and are making the 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) sea crossing south to Indonesia in rickety boats.

Indonesian police and fishermen said last week they have begun patrolling parts of Aceh province, on the northwestern tip of Sumatra, to prevent the landing of refugee boats. Over 1,000 Rohingya have arrived this month, the largest number since 2015.

About 1 million Rohingya Muslims are living in squalid refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. In 2017, Myanmar's military began a brutal crackdown on Rohingya people living in Rakhine state, destroying villages and killing thousands.

Hundreds of thousands more fled across the border to Bangladesh. The UN later called what happened a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Refugees escape Cox's Bazar

However, life has remained difficult for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as they lack food, security, education, and work opportunities in the crowded camps.

A report by Human Rights Watch published this year said criminal gangs and affiliates of Islamist armed groups were causing fear at night in the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.

A 19-year-old Rohingya refugee who recently arrived in Aceh province with her family told the AFP news agency that criminals in Cox's Bazar threatened her and her family every day, and she paid over $1,800 (€1,640) for the boat journey to Indonesia.

Bangladesh police say about 60 Rohingya people have been killed in the Cox Bazar camps this year so far.

Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, an activist network, told DW that many refugees are fleeing violence in the camps.

"Criminal gangs control the camps at night, making it so that no one in the camps feels safe. It poses a significant challenge for all refugees," he told DW.

Indonesia: Local voices disapprove of Rohingya boat arrivals

However, Lwin also said the World Food Programme (WFP) cut refugee food rations earlier this year, which for many Rohingya was the last straw.

"In the camps, people depend on WFP's ration allowance, which makes it impossible to have sufficient food nowadays — $8 for a person for the whole month's ration," Lwin told DW.

"The restriction of movement in the camps makes it impossible to work outside for survival," he said. "There is no alternative livelihood opportunity available, and there is no hope for meaningful repatriation soon, which makes refugees desperate to search for a better life elsewhere."

Rohingya refugees are not allowed to work or get a proper education in Bangladesh. They have been barred from learning the local Bengali language as the host country's authorities don't want them to integrate into mainstream society. They are also barred from being granted formal citizenship in Myanmar.

"The absence of livelihoods with dignity is the leading cause for the genocide survivors fleeing the camps and taking dangerous journeys to Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia," Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a Rohingya researcher based in Cox's Bazar, told DW.

He added that there is a large Rohingya community in Indonesia and Malaysia and many refugees believe they can earn an income in other countries.

"In addition, gang violence, law enforcement agencies brutality, criminal acts such as extortion, kidnapping, physical attacks and lack of psychological well-being also add to the causes," he added.

Germany-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin said criminals who somehow access the restricted camps take advantage of the refugees' vulnerability and lure them to take dangerous sea journeys.

"Faced with a hopeless situation, the refugees tend to believe whatever they were told by human traffickers and prepare for the risky journey," he told DW. "Many lost their lives at sea or suffered torture at the hands of the traffickers."

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh mark 'genocide day'

Bangladesh says it is fighting human trafficking

Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner (RRRC), told DW that he doesn't think the refugees are leaving camps due to the security situation.

"They are stateless people, and we are not allowing them to integrate in Bangladesh. It's not possible for us. So, for the sake of their next generation, they are trying to go to the countries where they think their future generation will have a better life," he said.

The refugee chief added that the local law enforcement agencies have been trying to curb human trafficking, and more measures will be implemented in the future to tackle the situation.

"Two or three days ago, 58 Rohingya refugees were stopped from setting sail to Malaysia or Indonesia by police. Cases have been filed related to human trafficking in the area in recent years, and many arrests have been made to ensure justice," Rahman told DW.

"However, it's difficult to maintain law and order in the overcrowded camps due to their location and other factors," he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul