Rohingya in Aceh remain in limbo as asylum deal set to expire: Amnesty International report

A Rohingya mother, Rabiah Hattu, 19, lies with her newborn baby Mohammad Hasanuddin at a hospital in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, on Aug 5.
A Rohingya mother, Rabiah Hattu, 19, lies with her newborn baby Mohammad Hasanuddin at a hospital in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, on Aug 5.PHOTO: AFP

Some 1,000 Rohingya Muslims in Aceh remain in limbo as an agreement granting them refuge edges towards expiry in May next year (2016), says a new report by human rights group Amnesty International.

The Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority from Myanmar, were allowed to enter Indonesia's Aceh region in May this year during the regional migrant crisis.

Given that asylum places available usually far outnumber applications - and it can take years to process an asylum request - it is uncertain where the Rohingya can go next.

They are "now facing an uncertain future", the report said. "Indonesia has provided much-needed support… However, the Rohingya still do not know if they will be permitted to stay past their anticipated departure date of May 2016, or if they will be resettled in another country."

There are about one million Rohingya living in Myanmar, but the country does not recognise them as one of its ethnic minorities and refers to them as "Bengali" migrants. In 2012, sectarian violence drove many from their homes in Myanmar's Rakhine state into camps where food and medical attention is scarce, and their mobility severely restricted.

Despairing for the future, thousands attempt to reach Malaysia or other parts of Asia on boats run by human smugglers. They are joined by economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking work. Many fall into the hands of human traffickers and are sold on for exploitation or held ransom.

In April, a Thai crackdown on trafficking networks led to boatloads of starving migrants being abandoned out at sea. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia responded by turning away the boats until the latter two countries reached an agreement to give the migrants refuge for one year.

In the meantime, the living conditions in Aceh are not ideal, noted the report. In several locations, it observed "poor standards of sanitation, insufficient protection from the elements, as well as unsanitary cooking facilities". Psychosocial support "appears minimal".

Local gangs had entered some of the sites and beat the Rohingya up, said those interviewed for the report.

"Security guards have been accused of abuse and intimidation, and local male police officers have been accused of inappropriate pat-downs of female Rohingya asylum-seekers," it said. Local police are investigating allegations of a rape.

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has appealed for US$13 million (S$18 million) to deal with the migrant crisis, only 20 per cent of that amount has been raised by August.

The report urged the international community to share responsibility for aiding the asylum seekers.

tanhy@sph.com.sg