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Life of Rohingyas Gets More Difficult After Refuge

“Here we only sleep, eat, sleep again and pray.”

Sanuar Begum (right) enjoys a meal with husband Abdul Roshid (second from left) and relatives at a camp in Bayeun, East Aceh Regency Image: BenarNews

Sanuar Begum was among more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who landed in the Indonesian province of Aceh last May, when local fishermen rescued boatloads of desperate and hungry passengers off smugglers’ vessels abandoned at sea.

A year later, only about 250 Rohingyas remain at four refugee camps scattered across the province. But although many of her fellow residents at the Bayeun camp in East Aceh Regency complain about being idle and only being able to “eat, sleep, and pray,” because their refugee status prevents them from applying for local jobs, Sanuar and some others say they are relatively content in their present situation.

“My husband says it is much better here because Acehnese are good people. They welcome us very well,” Sanuar, 20, told BenarNews.

Although she had the opportunity to try to leave Aceh and travel with two older sisters to Malaysia – a prime destination in Southeast Asia for Rohingyas – Sanuar said she turned down the offer because she was pregnant at the time. She has since given birth to a baby boy, Muhammad Nasrullah.

Sanuar and the others were part of a mass exodus by sea that saw more than 3,000 undocumented Rohingyas from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh come ashore during an irregular migration crisis that hit Southeast Asia in May 2015, and was precipitated by a Thai crackdown on human trafficking and a Thai maritime blockade on smugglers’ boats.

The residents at Bayeun were so-called “Green Boat” passengers rescued by Acehnese fishermen in the Strait of Malacca on May 20, 2015, after the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to allow their vessel to land.

As many as 434 passengers were rescued in that incident, including dozens of Bangladeshi migrants. Now some 100 Rohingya refugees are left at the camp in Bayeun. Since May 2015, more than 800 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas have been repatriated in three batches, according to local officials.

The camp is housed in an abandoned paper mill. The refugees live there and are supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) through aid from Japan, the United States and European Union.

Related article: In Myanmar, monks protest over US Embassy using “Rohingya’ term for Bengali Muslims

Many of the Rohingyas are children who have learned to speak Indonesian fluently. Some of the grown-up residents have married other inmates and dozens of babies have been born at the camps across Aceh.

“I wish to stay in Aceh forever. But if I was not allowed, I would move to Australia or the United States, according to the IOM. So my wife, five of our children and I can live in peace,” Jamal, a 37-year-old Rohinyga resident of the camp, told BenarNews.

Busy but jobless

But others say they are tired of remaining idle and want jobs so they can earn some money for their families back in Myanmar.

When asked what they had been doing for almost a year in Aceh, some replied in unison, “Here we only sleep, eat, sleep again and pray.”

Many of the other Rohingyas had left the camp in search of jobs in Malaysia, where the average wage for Rohingyas is 50 ringgit (U.S. $12.70) per month, Jamal said.

Like countless Rohingyas, Jamal escaped from Myanmar where members of the Muslim minority flee religious persecution and are treated as second-class citizens.

“I was a cook in a hotel. When the riots occurred, I was beaten up. They fired me after that and I lost my job,” he told Benar, referring to riots in his home state of Rakhine in 2012.

Jamal stands out from his fellow inmates at the camp. He keeps up his dignity by wearing a suit every day, along with a pair of donated shoes.

“I have to save my money. I bought their belongings provided by IOM and I sold them to a nearby market. I have five kids and a wife to feed,” he said.

To kill their boredom while being jobless, other residents spend their time at the camp planting vegetables and raising chickens.

Others take English and Arabic classes, as well as learn other skills.

Rohingyas learn English from textbooks at the camp in Bayeun, March 27, 2016. (Nurdin Hasan/BenarNews)

“We bought the vegetables planted in their garden, and feed them from their own garden. So they can earn a small amount of money. If they can harvest abundantly, we help them sell it in the market,” said Usman A. Rahman, a local government official who is in charge of the camp in Bayeun.

The local government has been working together with IOM and the U.N. refugee agency to train the camp’s residents in various skills, he said. For example, the women have been taking sewing classes.

“We hope that when someday they move to other countries, they have already mastered some skills to easily get jobs,” Usman told BenarNews, noting that the Indonesian government’s policy did not allow refugees to obtain jobs in the country.

‘All I can do now is pray’

Some of the Rohingyas were arrested in North Sumatra after escaping from the refugee camps and while trying to leave for Malaysia.

They were eventually returned to the camps in Aceh. These include Asia Hatu, 23, and her son Muhammad Harun, 6.

“I wanted to leave because my husband is in Malaysia. But now I give up. I don’t want to run away anymore,” she told BenarNews. “All I can do now is pray. I just hope that one day there is a miracle that will reunite me with my husband.” (BenarNews)

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The Woes Of Indonesia’s Children

According to Flint, Indonesia’s “reasonably high average income conceals a fair amount of underlying inequality.

Two sick children wait for treatment after being admitTed to a hospital in Agats, Asmat District, after the government dispatched military and medical personnel to the remote region of Papua to combat malnutrition and measles, Indonesia. VOA

Despite its middle income status, Indonesia is dealing with what experts say are unexpectedly high rates of childhood stunting. Now, its government – starting with the the president – is declaring war on the issue and committing to boost its response to the challenge following a World Bank publication that says 37 percent of Indonesia’s children were stunted in 2013, a rate on par with some far more impoverished nations of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Stunting is the medical condition that the World Health Organization defines as “impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.”

While Indonesia’s health ministry and other agencies have been battling to address the problem for years, the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has now elevated the issue to be a national priority, making it a point to include it in last year’s Independence Day address.

“Before he mentioned it in the speech, I doubt it has ever been mentioned by a president in Indonesia,” said Claudia Rokx, a lead health specialist at the World Bank and one of the authors of the landmark book released last month.

“If you’re malnourished during that first thousand days, the likelihood is that you would have suffered from irreversible brain damage,”

First 1,000 days

Health experts emphasize that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital for preventing stunting, requiring adequate breastfeeding and nutrition, stimulation and activity, clean water and sanitation, and timely treatment of conditions like diarrhea and malaria.

With more than one in three Indonesian children being stunted, this means around 9 million children in Southeast Asia’s most populous country are suffering from developmental limitations.

Nusa Tenggara Timur, an impoverished province of eastern Indonesia, has the highest rate of stunting in Indonesia at 52 percent. Fifi Sumanti is a midwife on Komodo Island, known for its famous dragons and home to just 2,000 people. It is arid and most food must be brought in from other islands.

“Mothers here aren’t used to giving their children enough vegetables and fruit. They’re happier to give instant food to the children,” Sumanti told VOA. Hygiene awareness and access to clean water are also major problems, she said.

While the poorest parts of Indonesia suffer the highest rates of stunting, even among the richest proportion of Indonesians stunting is as high as 29 percent.

Health experts emphasize that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital for preventing stunting. Pixabay

Dr. Brian Sriprahastuti, a senior advisor to the office of the President of Indonesia on the issue of stunting, said the reasons for Indonesia’s stunting problem today go beyond the traditional factors of poverty and limited access to public services. “Now we have another hypothesis that behavior is the main problem of this stunting issue,” Sriprahastuti said.

Sumanti, the midwife, agrees.

“We need to speak with [mothers] more about what stunting is and give greater care from the time mothers are first pregnant until they give birth, until the time the child is three years old,” she said.

“If you’re malnourished during that first thousand days, the likelihood is that you would have suffered from irreversible brain damage,” said Simon Flint, a donor with the Asian Philanthropy Circle, a Singapore-based charity. It is thus, Flint said, “critically important” to prevent stunting to ensure “any intervention or expenditure on education,” adding it “could be so much more effective later on in a person’s life.”His group plans to launch a $10 million 1000 Days Fund by this March to support anti-stunting programs in Indonesia.

A new commitment

In the forward to the World Bank publication, the Indonesian president called current stunting rates “unacceptable” and pledged to prevent two million children from being stunted by 2021. “Eliminating stunting is therefore a main priority for our Government,” he wrote. “The Government is fully committed to do whatever it may take to achieve this goal.

“I doubt it has ever been mentioned by a president in Indonesia,” said Claudia Rokx, a lead health specialist at the World Bank. Pixabay

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, said the government is investing in what he said are “evidence-based interventions” across 100 districts, to be expanded to the country’s 541 districts by 2021. “This initiative marks a decisive step up in the ambitions of the world’s fourth-most populous nation to tackle stunting as part of its commitment to sustained, inclusive economic growth,” he wrote.

According to Flint, Indonesia’s “reasonably high average income conceals a fair amount of underlying inequality. Just for example, according to government figures, in 2016 around 30 million Indonesians were still living on less than a dollar a day. There’s obviously a huge problem of inequality and lack of access among the poorest people.”

Sriprahastuti of the President’s Office said that the government was adopting a human rights-based approach. “For all pregnant women in Indonesia, everywhere, for all children under two, everywhere, we have to support them.”

Also Read: A Majority of Children Die Due to lack of Basic Healthcare Facilities: UN

“They know they have a huge problem, they’ve recognized it now. They are ready to do something about it. They’ve thrown a lot of money into it. They have the highest-level commitment, and they know it can be done in Indonesia as well,” said Rokx.

“Everything is in place for them to do it well, they just have to coordinate better, be persistent and make sure that these kids get the best start in life they can get.” (VOA)