Indonesians protest against Rohingya refugees, clash with police

More than one hundred Indonesians protested Wednesday against Rohingya refugees who arrived on a western island by boat last week, calling for them to be relocated and clashing with police, AFP reports.

The mostly Muslim Rohingya are heavily persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, and thousands risk their lives each year on sea journeys to try and reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

The last month has seen a spike in journeys to Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh from Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh — a voyage of about 1,800 kilometres (1,120 miles) — with more than 1,000 arrivals in the biggest such wave since a 2017 Myanmar military crackdown.

A group of 139 refugees including women and children landed on Sabang island on Saturday, but locals threatened to push them back to sea and demanded that authorities move them.

They were then relocated to a dock where they were kept in tents.

On Wednesday dozens of police blocked a group of around 150 protesters who were trying to breach a gate and pushing officers to get to the area where the refugees were sheltering, according to footage shared on social media.

“The people can convey their aspirations. We were only securing (the area). We directed our personnel for security,” said Sabang police chief Erwan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

“The situation is safe and under control. The people were pushing the fence because they wanted to go in,” he said, referring to the area where the refugees are staying.

After the protesters left, the Rohingya refugees performed a dusk prayer at the site, according to a video shared with AFP by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

“Thank God the Sabang government continues to uphold humanitarian values. Protection for the Rohingya refugees continues to be given,” said UNHCR official Faisal Rahman.

Many Acehnese, who themselves have memories of decades of bloody conflict, have long been sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Muslims.

But some say their patience has been tested, claiming the Rohingya consume scarce resources and occasionally come into conflict with locals.

There has been a noticeable uptick in negative posts in Indonesian about Rohingya refugees arriving by boat across social media platforms, according to AFP’s FactCheck team in Indonesia.

More than 3,500 Rohingya are believed to have attempted the risky journey to Southeast Asian countries in 2022 with nearly 350 dying or going missing, according to the UNHCR.

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