How a wave of disinformation is endangering Rohingya refugees in Indonesia

Dozens of photos and videos that have been either “doctored” or taken out of context so as to negatively portray Rohingya refugees have been circulating on Indonesian social media. This wave of disinformation has become so intense that the United Nations is worried about the refugees’ safety – even in Aceh province, which has, historically, been considered very welcoming. Our Observer, an Indonesian journalist who specialises in fact-checking for a publication called Mafindo, has been looking at the rise in online hate speech and fake news targeting the Rohingya.

Hundreds of protesters forced a group of Rohingya refugees to leave their temporary shelter in a parking lot in Banda Aceh, the capital of the Indonesian province of Aceh, on December 27, 2023. Videos show the protesters chanting slogans like “get them out” and threatening the frightened refugees, among them women and children. 

This footage, which was widely circulated both on social media and by media outlets, has shocked the Rohingya community and its advocates. Each year, many Rohingya arrive in makeshift boats on the beaches of this province in the far northern part of Indonesia. Up until now, they were welcomed by locals. 

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, have long faced persecution in their country, but more than 700,000 of them fled when the Myanmar military began a violent campaign of repression in August 2017. Many of them now live as refugees in Bangladesh, often in dire circumstances. Many Rohingya have been attempting to flee the terrible situations in both Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. 

Many of these boats are bound for Malaysia. However, few reach their target destination, whether due to poor weather conditions, overcrowding or badly equipped boats.  

Many of the boats end up coming ashore in the Indonesian region of Aceh. More than 1,600 landed there in 2023, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

However, in recent months, it seems like the Rohingyas are no longer welcome in Aceh. A group of locals rejected a boat filled with more than 250 refugees back in November 2023, forcing them back to sea and, since then, there have been other cases of the same kind of response. There have also been other reports of locals physically and verbally threatening refugees. Locals have also accused workers with the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) of being part of a human trafficking network. 

The spike in anti-Rohinyga actions is occurring alongside a rise in online hate speech and disinformation about Rohingya on social media in Indonesia. 

The number of photos and videos taken out of context to feed into a negative narrative about Rohingya refugees has exploded on Instagram and TikTok in recent months.

For example, a video that claims to show Rohingya refugees burning down a warehouse has gone viral on TikTok. We did a reverse image search on the footage (click here to find out how) to figure out when this footage first appeared online. Turns out, it actually shows a fire that took place back in 2020 in Cimahi, a town in the Indonesian province of West Java.

This is a screengrab of a video posted on TikTok. The caption, in Indonesian, says, “Rohingyas burned down this warehouse in Aceh because they weren’t given food.” © FRANCE 24 Observers

Another video, which has garnered more than 11 million views on TikTok since December, shows an enormous boat filled with passengers. The caption on the video reads: “Rohingyas are once again being transported from Bangladesh to Indonesia.” In reality, the footage shows a boat that carries out internal voyages within Bangladesh. You can see the name of the boat in the footage and, from there, we were able to find out its itinerary. It turns out that some of the footage of this boat was taken from a Bangladeshi YouTube channel.

This is a screengrab of a video published on TikTok that claims to show a boat filled with Rohingya refugees who have left Bangladesh bound for Indonesia.
This is a screengrab of a video published on TikTok that claims to show a boat filled with Rohingya refugees who have left Bangladesh bound for Indonesia. © FRANCE 24 Observers

‘Fake information linked to hate speech targets people’s emotions’ 

The Indonesian platform Mafindo investigated these two videos and uncovered their origins. Aribowo Sasmito, a journalist with Mafindo, says that there has been a sharp rise in fake information about the Rohingyas online in recent months :

Everything began with a series of TikTok videos that were made to look like they were from the UNHCR. It became so intense that the UNHCR had to speak out to say that these weren’t their videos.

In this thread posted on X, the United Nations in Indonesia warned social media users about fake information about the Rohingya published by accounts pretending to be the UNHCR. These fake accounts claimed, for example, that the UNHCR in Bangladesh gave special passes to Rohingya.


There are also more and more videos on Instagram and TikTok that paint the Rohingyas as ungrateful. 

The problem with these videos is that people allow themselves to be influenced without verifying them, especially anything that reaffirms the narrative that the Rohingya are bad.


There are common themes that emerge in these fake news items. One portrays Rohingyas as ungrateful for the help offered by Indonesians. Another common narrative is that they are all part of a human trafficking network. Another is that they are “fake” Muslims.


Because most Indonesians are very religious, faith is one of the main themes exploited by disinformation and hate speech. 

It is very difficult to dismantle fake information based on hate speech, because it targets people’s emotions. The easiest way to spread disinformation in a religious and family-orientated society like Indonesia is to integrate religion and racism into it.


Some posts compare the Rohingya refugees arriving in Indonesia with the situation in Israel and Gaza – but, in these posts, the Rohingya are portrayed as spoiling the land belonging to Indonesians. 

A fake UNHCR account, for example, seemed to claim that it was going to give the Rohingya an “empty island”. Another fake news item that is supposed to show boats filled with Rohingya refugees is captioned: “The situation in Israel is happening again here.” In actuality, however, the boats shown are Chinese fishing boats.

This is a screengrab of a video posted on TikTok that claims to show boats filled with Rohingya heading towards Indonesia. “Protect our seas from illegal Rohingya refugees,” reads the text.
This is a screengrab of a video posted on TikTok that claims to show boats filled with Rohingya heading towards Indonesia. “Protect our seas from illegal Rohingya refugees,” reads the text. © FRANCE 24 Observers

Some local NGOs are actually starting to believe this negative discourse about the Rohingya. Some of their members believe the narrative that the refugees are ungrateful and badly behaved.  

One reason for the increasingly negative view of the Rohingya in Aceh is an incident that took place in 2021 – three fishermen were imprisoned after they helped 99 Rohingya refugees trapped on a sinking boat. They were sentenced to five years in prison on human trafficking charges. There remains a sense of in injustice in Aceh and sometimes the Rohingya are blamed for this. 

In this impoverished region, the image of the refugees being “ungrateful” has spread quickly, explains journalist Sasmito :


The few isolated cases where a Rohingya refugee has been badly behaved end up being applied to the whole population. When people already have an aversion to another group, then they can be easily incited to share false information that reaffirms their beliefs.

There are also external factions that feed into this narrative, like when Indonesian president Joko Widodo said [in December 2023] that the number of Rohingya in the country had increased because of human trafficking.


In early January, a video clip that was shared more than 200,000 times made it look like the Indonesian president wanted to deport the Rohingya. But in the full speech, which was obtained by fact-checking outlet AFP factuel, Widodo doesn’t talk about deportation. He says that he wants to end human trafficking and that he is committed to providing temporary aid to the Rohingya “while prioritizing the interests of the local community”. 

‘The Rohingya have become scapegoats’  

The anti-Rohingya sentiment is also growing amid a backdrop of heightened nationalism and patriotism, with elections having been held on February 14. Chris Lewa, the president of the Arakan Project, an association dedicated to Rohingya rights, has kept a close eye on the evolution of this anti-Rohingya discourse online: 


When the first boat was prevented from landing [in November], the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement underscoring that Indonesia didn’t sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, which meant that they were under no international obligation to receive the Rohingya. His words have often been cited in anti-Rohingya discourse. 

However, the country does need to respect national laws [Editor’s note: which require the country to accept refugees, including a presidential decree from 2016].

Against the backdrop of presidential elections, the Rohingya have become scapegoats. 

[Faced with the rising tensions] the government said that they want to work with the UNHCR and the IOM but, in this climate, it hasn’t changed anything. Locals keep displacing the Rohingya and some of the Indonesian members of my association don’t want to go into the camps anymore. Some have even faced physical threat. It isn’t like that everywhere though, thankfully, and some villagers are still showing their support to the Rohingya refugees. 


Some journalists and analysts are speaking about what looks like a coordinated “campaign” of disinformation, but have, so far, been unable to determine who might be behind this. 

Source link

#wave #disinformation #endangering #Rohingya #refugees #Indonesia

A new wave of violence rocks Rohingya camps

In a brazen, daylight attack earlier this month, a group of assailants knifed a Rohingya community leader to death in Cox’s Bazar and fled. The death of Mohammad Ebadullah, 35, sent a shockwave through the Kutupalong block where he had provided community service. It all played out when a delegation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), led by Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan, a British lawyer, was interviewing refugees in another block of the camp.

The murder of Ebadullah is part of a long list of killings by armed groups that stalk the world’s largest refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh. Armed groups killed over 40 Rohingya refugees in the camps in 2022, while at least 48 refugees were killed in the first half of 2023. Seven refugees, including a camp community leader and alleged members of militant groups, died in three incidents on July 6 and 7, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Also read: Explained | What is India’s policy on the Rohingya? 

The rights group documented 26 cases of violence against Rohingya, including murder, kidnapping, torture, rape and sexual assault, and forced marriage, drawing on interviews with 45 Rohingya refugees between January and April 2023.

“Many of those killed have been Rohingya community leaders or their family members. Scores of refugees have been abducted for ransom and threatened or tortured. Several Rohingya reported the involvement of armed groups in sexual assault, forced marriage, and child recruitment,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released on July 13.

Escalating fear

Refugees describe an environment of escalating brutality and fear, with growing concerns of being targeted by criminal gangs and claimed affiliates of Islamist armed groups.

Over a million Rohingya refugees, a stateless Muslim minority, have fled violence in Myanmar in successive waves of displacement since the early 1990s. The latest exodus began in August 2017, when violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, driving more than 742,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Most arrived in the first three months of the crisis.

Bangladesh opened its borders to the refugees, earning global plaudits for its generosity, but the host country is now seemingly unhappy with the international community for not putting enough pressure on the military junta in Myanmar to make conditions safe for the voluntary return of the refugees. The government clearly did not anticipate that the Rohingya will remain for so long. Now the camps have turned into breeding grounds for crimes, partly because the Rohingya do not have access to education and livelihoods.

Also read | Should India change its policy on the Rohingya?

“If opportunities don’t exist, it becomes a problem. Then there is the risk of recruitment by these criminal groups. There is the risk of rising criminality for livelihood issues. And I think a large part of that is now, unfortunately, playing out in the camps,” Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview.

Killing of a rights campaigner

The existence of armed groups in Rohingya camps came to the fore after the killing of 48-year-old Mohammad Mohibullah in the Kutupalong camp in 2021. He was one of the most prominent advocates for the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. He represented the Rohingya community at the UN Human Rights Council in 2019. Prior to his death, he had been serving as chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. The group was founded in 2017 to document atrocities against Rohingya in their native Myanmar and give them a voice in international forums about their future.

Many Rohingya refugees are caught in the conflict’s crosshairs. Armed groups demand that the refugees be loyal to them and the security forces demand that they must identify the criminals.

“People are caught in the middle, they’re squeezed on both sides. And that is a really untenable situation for the people already in the worst circumstances in their lives,” Ms. Ganguly said.

Providing security is almost always the function of the state and it is for the state to determine how many troops they need and where they should be deployed to create a robust security mechanism, not only for the Rohingya but also for their own national interest, she added.

Armed groups in the camps have been increasingly kidnapping Rohingya refugees for ransom, forced recruitment, or human trafficking. There are numerous people that are roaming around identifying themselves as members of these groups only to extort the camp residents, creating a sense of fear and intimidation. Extortion can range from cash to the daughters of the house.

HRW documented 10 cases of abduction. Six victims described being tortured during their abductions. “I was fed only bread and water,” a teenage boy who was kidnapped in February and held for a week, until his family paid ransom, told the rights agency. “They beat me with thick electric wire. They tried to kill me and threatened they were going to. I was so scared. One of them tried to rape me. I still feel so worried when I think about that.”

Security measures

The rights group said the Bangladesh authorities failed to provide adequate security measures to protect people from surging violence by armed groups and criminal gangs. It urged the authorities to assist refugees by establishing accessible systems to report crimes and promptly investigate complaints.

Security risks are compounded by desperation in the camps. The World Food Programme reduced monthly food vouchers for Rohingya refugees in June, the second time in three months — a 33% reduction in the daily ration, citing the shortage of lifesaving assistance. With the food voucher valued at as little as $8 per person per month — that’s less than 10 cents per meal — the refugees face grim choices to make ends meet.

“Parents are already eating less and skipping meals so that their children can eat. The rations cuts affect approximately one million refugees who remain dependent on aid with no possibility of employment to sustain their livelihood,” the UN in Bangladesh said in a statement last month.

At the beginning of the year, refugees were receiving a ration from the UN food agency of $12 per person per month, just enough to meet their daily needs. In March, the ration was reduced to $10 in March due to lack of funding. Now, the ration will only have a value of $8 per person. Ms. Ganguly has called for more commitment from the international community to protect the rights of the Rohingya, acknowledging that the attention to the Rohingya issue has waned because the same resources have gone towards other security challenges, particularly in Ukraine after the start of Russia’s war.

That concurs with ICC Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan’s tweeted message after his visit to Rohingya camps this month: “Amidst crises around the world, we must not forget the #Rohingya. The incredible hope they still have in justice is something we must protect & vindicate.”

Source link

#wave #violence #rocks #Rohingya #camps