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Rohingya refugee smuggling ring busted in Aceh, Indonesia

The arrest of a 70-year-old Bangladeshi for smuggling 341 Rohingya refugees into Aceh, Indonesia, exposed a lucrative trafficking ring, involving over US$235k in profits.

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INDONESIA – In a startling development, the Aceh Police arrested Husson Mukhtar, a 70-year-old Bangladeshi national, who allegedly played a key role as a human trafficker smuggling Rohingya refugees into Aceh.

The apprehension took place in the wake of Mukhtar and his accomplices bringing 341 individuals on two separate boats, marking the first Rohingya refugee arrivals in the region in November 2023.

On 14 November, the first vessel, under Mukhtar’s command and named FB SEFA, landed in Muara Tiga Subdistrict, Pidie Regency, carrying 147 people. Meanwhile, his fugitive associates, Saber and Zahangir, arrived a day later on 15 November, in Batee Subdistrict, Pidie Regency, aboard the FB Hajiaiyob Moorf with 194 refugees on board.

The residents of Aceh reject Rohingya immigrants who landed on their village shores and request the immigrant group to board the ship and set sail again. (Photo: AFP via CNN Indonesia)

Upon reaching Aceh’s shores, the traffickers disguised themselves as Rohingya refugees, attempting to flee into the mountains. However, residents apprehended Mukhtar due to his advanced age and inability to escape when pursued by local youths, as reported by Pidie Police Chief Police Commissioner Adjunct Imam Asfali on Wednesday (6 Dec).

Further investigations by the police revealed that the traffickers intentionally transported Rohingya refugees to Aceh to reap financial gains.

Adults were charged Rp14 million (approximately US$1,000) for the journey, while children incurred a fee of Rp7 million (approximately US$500) per person.

With 341 refugees landing in Pidie, the culprits amassed profits totalling Rp3.3 billion (approximately US$235,714).

The influx of Rohingya refugees has ignited controversy and opposition among the local population in Aceh.

Responding to the crisis, President Joko Widodo instructed the Minister of Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD to address the situation. President Jokowi urged Mahfud to coordinate with local governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

According to Mahfud MD, there are currently 1,478 Rohingya refugees in Indonesia, emphasizing that the government is actively seeking solutions to the refugee crisis.

Indonesia’s humanitarian stance toward Rohingya refugees, despite not being bound by international conventions under UNHCR, contrasts with the closure policies of neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Australia, and Singapore.

Vice President Ma’ruf Amin suggested the possibility of using Galang Island in Batam, Riau Province, as a relocation site for Rohingya refugees.

He mentioned that Pulau Galang in Batam was once used to accommodate refugees from Vietnam several decades ago.

However, Mahfud dismissed the option, stating that no decision had been made on potential relocation sites.

UNHCR received reports of two damaged and adrift boats carrying around 400 people in the Andaman Sea. Expressing concern about the refugees’ safety, UNHCR urged neighboring countries to take immediate action and highlighted the unfavorable weather conditions.

In response to local resistance and the investigation into the smuggling ring, Aceh Police Chief Inspector General (Pol) Achmad Kartiko called on UNHCR not to overlook the Rohingya refugee wave in Aceh.

Especially considering their arrival was initially rejected by residents from various areas. From the investigation results, on average, Rohingya refugees arriving in Aceh bear UNHCR identities in the Bengali language.

He alleged negligence on the part of the UN agency, accusing it of allowing Rohingya individuals to move from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to Indonesia.

“We also found that Rohingya individuals have UNHCR cards issued in Bangladesh in the Bengali language, what does this mean? It’s not solely our responsibility; UNHCR must also be accountable for why Rohingya escaped from Bangladesh,” said Police Inspector General Achmad Kartiko to journalists on Thursday (30 Nov).

UNHCR Jakarta’s spokesperson, Mitra Salima, refuted the accusations, emphasizing the organization’s commitment to providing humanitarian aid and protection to refugees worldwide.

Salima asserted that UNHCR advocates for countries to extend international protection to refugees, regardless of their origin or arrival circumstances.

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