Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Friday his government suspected a human trafficking network was behind the rising number of Rohingya refugees reaching his country by boat.
The mostly Muslim Rohingya face heavy persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar – including a 2017 crackdown that is subject to a UN genocide probe – and many have fled over the border to camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
From there, thousands risk their lives each year on dangerous and expensive sea journeys to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia – voyages of about 1,800km (1,120 miles).
Last month saw a spike in arrivals to Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh, with more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees landing there in the largest such wave since 2015.
“There is strong suspicion of the involvement of human trafficking networks in this refugee influx,” Widodo told a press conference.
He vowed that his government “will take strict action against human trafficking perpetrators”.
The latest arrivals, a group of 139 refugees, including women and children, were met with a protest on Wednesday.
More than 100 locals threatened to push the refugees back to sea, calling for them to be relocated.
Widodo said his government would provide temporary relief “with a priority on the interests of the local community”.
Three locals were arrested for human trafficking after they helped 30 Rohingya refugees leave their camp in Lhokseumawe city, Aceh, said Lhokseumawe police chief Henki Ismanto.
The suspects had received 300,000 Indonesian rupiahs (US$19.3o) from each refugee to take them to another location on Sumatra sland.
At least three Indonesians and a Bangladeshi citizen have been arrested in recent years for helping Rohingya flee to other places.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, but neighbouring countries have shut their doors, leaving the minority group with almost no other options.