The Pandemic Has Made Life Worse for Rohingya Refugees in Indonesia

Accessing work and healthcare is increasingly challenging for those who sought a new life in the Muslim-majority nation.
Rohingya refugees, Indonesia, COVID
This picture taken on Sept. 8, 2020 shows a group of Rohingya men sleeping on a pile of donated clothes at a transit camp after nearly 300 Rohingya migrants came ashore on the beach in Lhokseumawe on the northern coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island. When hundreds of Rohingya paid traffickers to escape their squalid refugee camp in Bangladesh earlier this year they were promised they were just a week away from a new life in Malaysia. Instead, the group of mostly women and children suffered more than 200 days of terror on the high sea until they landed on Indonesia's northern coast.
Rahmat Mirza / AFP

After seven years living as a Rohingya refugee in Indonesia, 23-year-old Arfat has realized he can only rely on himself.

He fled persecution in Myanmar at the age of 16, spent two years sleeping next to a cold wall in immigration detention, and now lives in a state-owned apartment with eight other Rohingya Muslim refugees south of Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya, waiting for resettlement to a third country. But the pandemic has made everything worse, as work opportunities and access to healthcare are more limited than usual. 


Muslim-majority Indonesia has long been a destination for Rohingya escaping waves of violence and apartheid-like conditions at home in Myanmar or seeking to escape crowded settlements in Bangladesh, where more than one million shelter in the world’s largest refugee camp. 

Like other refugees who arrive in Indonesia, the Rohingya do not have work permits. There is also no simple path to citizenship as Indonesia has not ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and they must wait until another country agrees to grant them asylum or citizenship through the UN refugee agency, a problem for Rohingya across Southeast Asia.

Every month, Rohingya refugees in Arfat’s community receive about $84 in aid from a relief fund and personal protective equipment supplies from UN agencies. But since the pandemic hit Indonesia, Arfat, who asked only part of his name be used for privacy reasons, said in many cases supplies aren’t enough, especially when it comes to masks and medicine.

Other than the limited donations, “we buy them ourselves,” Arfat said in a phone interview, referring to facemasks.

Rohingya refugees in the eastern Indonesian city of Makassar have the same problem. Ro Shofiqul Islam has been living there for more than seven years. The 26-year-old said he only received masks from the UN’s International Organization of Migration (IOM) once. “They said they have no budget [to provide masks for us],” he told VICE News, echoing concerns raised by Arfat about supplies and medical treatment assistance.


When contacted for comment, IOM Programme Support Officer Patrik Shirak told VICE News it is “working tirelessly” to assist 7,800 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, including those from Myanmar. Shirak said IOM has covered 1,599 health visits across all levels of care in July alone. However, the organization “is not in a position to comment publicly on individual medical records for privacy purposes,” he said, when asked to address specific complaints by Shofiqul and Arfat.

“Since the start of the pandemic, IOM has worked alongside government health offices and hospitals throughout Indonesia to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia are fully included in COVID-19 response measures,” he added.

According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at least 11,000 Rohingya refugees have been living in the country since 2015. The figure is believed to increase every year. This year alone, hundreds who sailed from camps in Bangladesh had to be rescued by courageous fishermen in the Indonesian province of Aceh in June and September

Indonesia’s maritime authority has faced harsh criticism for being too slow in granting permits to rescue Rohingya refugees trying to land. The fishermen who helped out instead have claimed the government was worried the refugees were already infected by COVID-19. They are now temporarily housed in a former work training center.

Though they are no longer adrift at sea, the shelter is not much better, according to monitors. They are packed into one room with no partitions and only separated by gender, according to Dominique Virgil, Amnesty International’s Indonesia researcher, who estimated that 70 percent of the Rohingya refugees who landed in Aceh in early September are women and children, meaning there is less space for them and no way to practice social distancing


She said that when the first group of 99 Rohingya refugees landed in Aceh in June, humanitarian organizations and local governments were able to provide basic needs like masks and hygiene kits. But things got more complicated when another boat arrived two months later.

“It was a bit overwhelming when [the second group of refugees] came ashore in September,” Virgil told VICE. “There is no partition or anything that can separate the refugees, so they all stay in the same room […] It’s also concerning that not all of them have received hygiene kits.”

The living conditions make Rohingya refugees more vulnerable to illness. Local media reported that a young refugee in Aceh died only a day after being rescued by the fishermen, and the toll could be higher.

Indonesia has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Southeast Asia, with 307,120 total cases as of the first week of this month. In September alone, Indonesia added 112,212 new cases. Parts of Aceh are in the so-called red zone with a total of more than 4,500 cases and at least 179 deaths. 

But even if they move into apartments with fewer people, they still face the same problems as Arfat: a long wait and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, he is trying to stay productive and attempting to train as a therapist. 

“It’s not good to just sit around and do nothing at home,” he said.

His parents are now in Bangladesh’s sprawling refugee camp. He can only hope that other countries will welcome him soon so he can start helping them as his situation improves.

“I’m still optimistic about receiving asylum or citizenship in a third country,” Arfat said.