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Aceh Island, A Landing Ground For Rohingya Refugees

Written by Raoul Pandeirot, Ester Sorya Rifinka Sitinjak, Nadia Herdiana, and Khuin


Rohingya refugees wait to be moved to a shelter in Pantai Batee, Aceh province, November 15, 2023. At least 147 Rohingya refugees landed in Aceh that day, a local official said, a day after nearly 200 others landed in the same area. [Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

Recently, Indonesia has been stirred by the news of the Rohingya case concerning the refugees located in Aceh. Rohingyas are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who previously resided in Rakhine, the poorest state in Myanmar. Considered allies of the British during the colonial era, the Rohingyas faced widespread resentment from the people of Myanmar. The migration of the Rohingyas from Myanmar began in the 1990s and it reached its peak in 2017 due to the violence, discriminatory actions, and genocide they were subjected to by the Myanmar military. This compelled the Rohingyas to seek shelter and protection from neighboring countries. After fleeing to various countries to seek refuge, a majority of the Rohingya refugees relocated to Aceh, Indonesia. 

The Rohingya refugees that came to multiple countries (which also includes Indonesia) were driven by the desperation that was caused by the increase in murders, kidnappings, and the escalation of danger back home. Due to this situation, the refugees moved away from their homes to guarantee their safety and to get a better life, and as guests of Indonesia, the refugees are expected to follow Indonesian law and regulations. As recently as November 2023, there have been three waves of arrivals of hundreds of Rohingya refugees in Aceh waters, specifically in the Pidie Regency, North Aceh, and Bireuen.

“In our calculations, there have been 30 refugee landings in Aceh. There must be a call for a comprehensive handling of the Rohingya refugees,” as said by Mr. Husna, the coordinator for the Human Rights Organization/The Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence.

The Feedback from Indonesians Towards the Rohingya Refugees

In the beginning, the Aceh community took notice of the frequent incidents of stranded boats near Aceh’s waters. The people on Aceh Island responded by providing humanitarian aid, including temporary housing for shelter and medical support for the Rohingya refugees. The people of Aceh are not unfamiliar with significant disasters, such as the recent major earthquakes; this explains their compassionate response towards the Rohingya refugees as a humanitarian gesture. Indonesia’s willingness to accept the Rohingya refugees is deeply rooted in the country’s identity of upholding human rights norms. This event has made Indonesia collect much global attention. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported the number of Rohingya refugees in Indonesia reaching up to 1,296,525 since October 2023. In truth, Indonesia has not yet become a part of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees–a multilateral agreement that identifies the status of refugees and establishes the right to seek asylum, along with assigning responsibilities to the host country. 

In handling refugees from abroad, the Indonesian Government issued a Presidential Regulation No.125 of 2016 concerning the handing of refugees, covering aspects such as discovery, security, shelter, supervision and international collaboration and various other aspects. Despite the issuance of this regulation, there are still various issues that are not accommodate in the handling of refugees from abroad in Indonesia. The Indonesian government is currently facing a dillema in accepting refugees because Indonesia itself has not yet acceded to the 1951 Convention. This essentially means Indonesia technically has no obligation to acommodate refugees. The result of the coordination meetings and the national discussions will be reported to the Coordinating Minister for Politic, Legal and Security Affairs and will be followed up as input for the subsequent implementation of the revision of Presidential Regulation No.125 of 2016. 

Effects of The Rohingya Refugees Towards Indonesia

The refugees of Rohingya were not only taking shelter in Aceh Island but, as of last April of 2023, a fraction of them also resided in Medan and Penkanbaru. Regardless, the number of refugees reported entering the Sabang Aceh region rapidly increased. In an attempt to handle the ongoing increase, the President of the Republic of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, has appointed the Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Mahfud Mahmodin to handle the refugees in collaboration with the UNHCR.

Due to the increasing number of refugees, Indonesia has to provide more housing, healthcare, food, and other suitable facilities for the refugees, causing Indonesia to face various loads of economic, social, and security impacts. The role of the Indonesian National Armed Force (TNI) and other security forces has been evident through various actions and anticipatory measures taken in response to the Rohingya refugee situation. There is a growing sense of social resentment as local residents observe the actions of the Aceh Provincial government regarding their adequacy of resources to address the relatively high poverty rate in Aceh. This raises concerns about the potential for conflict among local residents if the government does not promptly address these issues. 

Recently, there has also been widespread news about Aceh residents rejecting the arrival of Rohingya refugees. Some have expressed concern over the exploitation of Indonesia’s willingness to provide assistance to the Rohingya refugees. Numerous issues have arisen, such as human trafficking, trafficking in person (TPPO) offenses and the perceived lack of appreciation for the aid provided to the refugees. Moreover, there have been reported cases of rape involving minors. The victims were threatened by the predators with weapons in the quarters where the victims resided; as stated by Inspector Rangga Setyadi, the head of criminal investigation at Pidie police. 

A number of the Rohingya refugees that arrived in Aceh were previous escapes from the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Local police investigations indicate the individuals were paid to use their boats to flee from Bangladesh and sail to Indonesia. The Aceh Regional Police Chief, Inspector General Achmad Kartiko, explained that according to the investigation, they found evidence of how the Rohingya refugees intentionally financed and paid for the boats, crewed by Bangladeshis, to enter Indonesia without proper official procedures, categorizing it as human smuggling. 

President Joko Widodo stated that temporary humanitarian assistance to refugees will continue, without sidelining the interests of the local community. This statement addresses the concerns of the local population to prevent debates within the community, considering the high level of public participation in the Rohingya arrival issue in Indonesia. This is also prompted by the increasing number of protests carried out by the Indonesian community, especially in the Aceh region. These protests are not only conducted in person but also gain traction on social media, occasionally becoming trending topics.

A post made by the UNHCR and UNIN (United Nations Indonesia) states, “Refugees are staying in Indonesia temporarily until a long term solution is found for them. UNHCR and IOM coordinate with authorities to ensure that the needs of refugees are met allowing them to live with dignity while in Indonesia.” This received a number of comments and opinions from the public. On December 13 2023, Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi stated that she invited the international community to collaborate in ending the Rohingya conflict in Indonesia, advocating the return of refugees back to their home in Myanmar. This statement was conveyed in a written statement at the Global Refugee Forum at the United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland. During the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) meeting, Retno emphasized Indonesia’s commitment to strengthening cooperation within the Bali Process, serving as a forum for addressing Trafficking in Person (TTPO) and other criminal activities related to countries of origin, transit and destination. 

On humanitarian grounds, providing assistance to Rohingya refugees should ideally not have detrimental impacts on Indonesia. However, the reality indicates the potential for stain on resources, as well as concerns about stability and security in the region. The Indonesian authorities, particularly the government, need to ensure that these potential threats are minimized and do not negatively affect their own citizens. Therefore, collaboration is highly needed, both at the national and international levels, to address these impacts and provide a sustainable solution for Rohingya refugees. 

International Law Elements

When referencing important sources of international law concerning the Rohingya refugee crisis, the 1951 Refugee Convention is a source that clearly defines the legal protection, rights, and assistance a refugee is entitled to receive. While Indonesia has not ratified this treaty, it has still consistently respected the principle of non-refoulement and hosted refugees and those seeking international protection. An instance of this can be seen during the Timor-Leste crisis in 1999 where violence erupted following political turmoil, to which Indonesia allowed international humanitarian agencies to assist the Timorese refugees who fled their country seeking asylum. Nevertheless, there is no concrete legal basis within Indonesia’s domestic laws that prevents it from returning the refugees to their homes. 

From an international perspective, the principle of non-refoulement has become an international customary law that binds it and prevents it from sending the refugees back. International customary law itself is a legally binding source of international law that consists of a body of unwritten rules and legal principles. Countries such as the USA, UK, Germany, and Italy are bound to the international customary law of non-refoulement due to being signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, States like South Africa, Egypt, India, and Turkey who are not bound by the treaty continue to honor the principle of non-refoulement, much like Indonesia. This fact combined with the opinio juris (the factor which states a country’s actions in international relations are carried out with a sense of legal obligation instead of habit) based on a combination of moral duty, human rights, consistent state practice, and the legal obligations outlined in international agreements solidifies non-refoulement as an international customary law. 

Within international customary law, the persistent objector rule dictates that States that do not express continuous refusal automatically bind themselves to customary international law which non-refoulement falls under. Historically speaking, Indonesia has always had a positive attitude towards refugees such as its reaction to the aforementioned Timor-Leste crisis, or when it obtained assistance from the UN and UNHCR to accommodate some of its islands to Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s or 1980s. Based on these instances it can be seen that Indonesia has consistently followed the principle of non-refoulement and as such binds it to international customary law, legally preventing Indonesia from repatriating the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.

International customary law is not the only source of law that binds Indonesia to protect Rohingya refugees. As a member of the UN, Indonesia is obligated to uphold the non-refoulement policy through general principles of law. Despite not being a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the General Assembly of the UN has consistently referred to the said treaty as the foundation of international refugee policies and urged each State party to apply its principles and provide refugee protection as needed. While this decision in the General Assembly is not legally binding, it still represents the commitments and obligations that Member States have to protect human rights.

One of the other major organizations of which both Indonesia and Myanmar are members is ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Due to the effect of the Rohingya refugees on Indonesia, the country has urged collective regional action within ASEAN to address the Rohingya refugee crisis. Despite this, one of the organization’s policies of non-interference within the internal affairs of member states has led to no action or intervention being taken in handling the Rohingya refugees. Even still Indonesia has focused on encouraging dialogue and engagement in finding a resolution to the issue while respecting Myanmar’s sovereignty and the opinions of ASEAN’s member states.  

Another relevant international organization is the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which Indonesia has been a member of since 1961. In spite of only ratifying twenty-eight out of fifty-nine IMO instruments, Indonesia has signed the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue which establishes an international framework for coordinating search and rescue operations at sea. This prevents Indonesia from denying assistance to those in distress at sea which includes migrants and refugees. 

With that being said, the laws discussed are still included as soft law which means they do not have any legally binding force, in such a way that those in favor of repatriating the refugees still have a strong argument to send them back to their country. Although national laws favor the refugees, from an international perspective, most laws that influence Indonesia to support the refugees still lack the binding power to prevent the refugees from being returned. 


Malahayati, M. (2017). Non-Refoulement: The legal basis and applied approach in the handling of Rohingya refugees in Indonesia. ResearchGate.

Shivakoti, Richa. “ASEAN’s Role in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis.” ASEAN’s Role in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis | Forced Migration Review, Accessed 20 Dec. 2023. 

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