Hundreds of Rohingya missing from Indonesian refugee camp

JAKARTA • Hundreds of Rohingya are missing from a refugee camp in Indonesia and believed to have fled to Malaysia, officials and sources said yesterday.

Just 112 refugees remain at the makeshift camp in Lhokseumawe on Indonesia’s northern coast this week, well down from the almost 400 who arrived between June and September last year.

Neither the local authorities nor the United Nations could account for the whereabouts of the refugees from the stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar, who are feared to have enlisted traffickers to help them cross the Malacca Strait into Malaysia.

“We don’t know yet where they went,” said Mr Ridwan Jalil, head of the Rohingya task force in Lhokseumawe. “But they’ll escape if they can find any hole to leave because that is their goal.”

A Myanmar military crackdown in 2017, which UN investigators said amounted to genocide, forced 750,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh’s south-east coastal district of Cox’s Bazar, where many ended up in sprawling refugee camps.

Thousands of them 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.

At least 18 Rohingya from the Lhokseumawe camp and over a dozen suspected traffickers were recently caught by police several hundred kilometres south, in Medan, a frequent staging point for illegal crossings into Malaysia.

Malaysia is the main destination for Rohingya fleeing refugee camps. More than 100,000 now live on the margins of society there, registered as refugees and not allowed to work, forcing the men into illegal construction and other low-paid jobs.

Some Rohingya men in Malaysia pay smugglers to bring over their families, or new brides from arranged marriages.

The refugees in Indonesia were repeatedly asked to remain in the camp, the UN’s refugee agency said. “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 spokesman 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,” she added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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