Hundreds of Rohingya Muslim refugees have gone missing from a makeshift camp in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, raising fears that they may have been smuggled to neighboring Malaysia.
“We don’t know yet where they went,” Ridwan Jamil, head of the Rohingya task force in the coastal town of Lhokseumawe, where the refugee camp was located, said on Thursday.
“But they’ll escape if they can find any hole to leave because that is their goal,” he said.
He said only 112 Rohingya Muslims remained at the Lhokseumawe camp, well down from the almost 400 that arrived between June and September last year.
Indonesian authorities said police had arrested at least 18 Rohingya refugees from the Lhokseumawe camp and over a dozen suspected traffickers in the city of Medan on Sumatra Island, a frequent staging point for illegal crossings into Malaysia, in recent days.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the refugees had been asked not to leave the camp, given the risks involved in making the journey.
“But [they] left despite our constant efforts to remind them about the danger and risks they could face by leaving, including if they used the services of smugglers,” UNHCR spokeswoman Mitra Suryono said.
“But we have to remember that many of [them] have relatives in other countries such as Malaysia. That may be one of the reasons why they continued their journey.”
Fleeing persecution in Myanmar and the already-crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have for years attempted to seek refuge, mostly by boat, in other Southeast Asian countries.
Thousands have paid smugglers to get them out of Bangladesh, enduring harrowing, months-long sea journeys punctuated by illness, beatings by traffickers, and near-starvation rations to reach Indonesia and Malaysia.
In July last year, two dozen persecuted Rohingya refugees went missing while attempting to swim to shore from a boat off the resort island of Langkawi.
Malaysia has long been a common destination for persecuted Rohingya refugees after they escaped a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh more recently. Malaysia has recently turned away boats and detained hundreds of Rohingya, saying it cannot take in more refugees because its economy is struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the start of 2020, up to 1,400 Rohingya people have been stranded in boats in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal after fleeing persecution in Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Myanmar, the native homeland of the Rohingya Muslims, is already under international pressure after the bloody military crackdown in 2017 sent around 750,000 civilians fleeing into Bangladesh and prompted the filing of genocide charges at the United Nations (UN)’s top court.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other humanitarian organizations have said that Myanmar’s government failed to abide by its international obligations to account for the army’s atrocities against minorities, particularly the Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims still remain in Myanmar under apartheid-like conditions, confined to camps and villages and denied access to healthcare and education.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which also denies them citizenship rights.