Indonesian fishermen praised for rescuing Rohingya travellers as pressure grows on ASEAN states to assist
Calls are growing for South-East Asian countries not to push boatloads of Rohingya asylum seekers back to sea, as Indonesian authorities say people rescued off the coast this week want to go to Australia.
- Hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers have arrived by boat in Malaysian and Indonesian waters in recent months
- There are calls for Australia to play a role in resolving the Rohingya crisis through the multilateral Bali Process
- Rights groups want South-East Asian nations to resolve alleged ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and accept refugees
Almost 100 Rohingya people were helped ashore by locals from fishing villages on the northern tip of the Indonesian province of Aceh before officials had decided to allow the people to disembark.
At least 79 of the rescued Rohingya are women and children, who have temporarily been sheltered in an abandoned Indonesian Immigration facility.
A coalition of Indonesia-based NGOs released a statement calling for the member states of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to renew pressure on Myanmar to “put an end to the crimes against humanity undergoing in the country”.
“ASEAN member states must open their arms to Rohingya refugees instead of rejecting those whose lives are at risk at sea,” the statement read.
However, discussions at the 36th ASEAN Summit on Friday, held virtually due to coronavirus, were dominated by regional economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told the Summit that: “We can no longer take more as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Malaysia is unfairly expected to do more to accommodate incoming refugees.”
Aceh fishermen praised for showing ‘best of humanity’
Rima Shah Putra, director of the Aceh-based Geutanyoe Foundation, told the ABC that locals had provided food and other charity to the rescued Rohingya.
Authorities undertook rapid COVID-19 testing among the asylum seekers with no positive cases.
But Mr Putra said some of the women were facing other medical issues: “They are suffering due to this long journey — feeling itchy, hygienic issues — the boat has been for five months at sea.”
He said the fishermen had acted to rescue the asylum seekers due to local customary law, which dictates they must assist anybody experiencing distress at sea.
The UN refugee agency’s country representative Anne Maymann applauded Indonesian authorities for allowing the people to disembark.
“Indonesia has several times been a country that has set an example to others in the region,” she said.
Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director Usman Hamid said in a statement that the local community in Aceh had demonstrated the “best of humanity”.
“[The] disembarkation of Rohingya refugees is a moment of optimism and solidarity. It’s a credit to the community in Aceh who pushed hard and took risks so that these children, women and men could be brought to shore,” he said.
Acehnese fishermen also provided assistance in May 2015 when almost 1,000 Rohingya refugees arrived in the province.
The mostly-Muslim Rohingya people are the largest stateless population on earth, having fled brutal persecution in Myanmar for decades.
Australia and the Bali process
The district head in North Aceh was quoted by local media as saying the Rohingya asylum seekers expressed they wished to travel on to Australia.
Why are the Rohingya stateless?
In Bangladesh they are a burden; in Myanmar they are despised. Where did the Rohingya come from and where do they belong?
“Earlier we had communicated with the Rohingya residents using a translator,” Muhammad Thaib was quoted by Kompas as saying.
“They asked for a good ship to continue their journey to Australia.”
“Their final destination is Australia,” said Heru Susetyo, an associate professor in law from the University of Indonesia, who said Indonesia needed to urge Myanmar not to “abuse its people”.
Mr Putra of the Geutanyoe Foundation said: “This is something of an alarm for Australia — for it to pressure Myanmar, South-East Asian governments to do something.”
“At least to respect the human rights about these people.”
For months, the UN has warned that South-East Asia could be facing a repeat of the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, when thousands of Rohingya were stranded at sea and some 370 people died after ASEAN governments turned back boats.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened already-desperate conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, leading many to seek asylum elsewhere.
A statement from several UN agencies last month expressed “deep concern” at reports that “boats full of vulnerable women, men and children are again adrift in the same waters, unable to come ashore, and without access to urgently needed food, water and medical assistance.”
Australia played a central role along with the US and regional governments in resolving the 2015 crisis.
There are now renewed calls for leaders to find a solution via the multistate Bali Process — co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia — which has historically focused on human trafficking issues.
“The Indonesian government must initiate intensive communication with country leaders in ASEAN and the Bali Process to rescue all of the people still stuck on perilous boats,” Mr Hamid of Amnesty said.
“Too many people have died undertaking these journeys — it’s time for leaders to step up and save lives.”
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, has said that South-East Asian countries are “callously passing the buck on protecting Rohingya refugees.”
‘We are not a rich community’
Aceh has its own history of inter-ethnic conflict, with the Free Aceh Movement insurgency against the Indonesian Government taking place between 1976 and 2005.
During the decades’ long conflict, Acehnese people fled as refugees to neighbouring countries including Malaysia and Australia.
The separatist movement ended after the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which saw waves of up to 30 metres batter Aceh.
The Indonesian Government estimates around 170,000 people were killed or went missing in the tsunami with a further 500,000 displaced.
“Maybe because the Acehnese suffered in previous times, having to flee conflict and because of the tsunami,” Mr Putra said.
“The memories of suffering in the Acehnese mind is so close with us.”
But Mr Putra said that the capacity of Aceh to cope with large numbers of refugees was limited, and that: “In the end, the Acehnese people want ASEAN to resolve this issue together.”
“It is time for ASEAN to rethink their approach to this issue … we [in Aceh] are not a rich community.”
Dr Susetyo added that the Acehnese likely helped out of a sense of Islamic solidarity, and that Indonesia should “temporarily welcome the boat people”.
“Do not send them back to their country of origin, Myanmar,” he said.
Muslim-majority Malaysia had previously allowed Rohingya arriving by boat from Bangladesh or Myanmar to enter the country, but in April the Government turned back a boat carrying some 200 Rohingya over COVID-19 concerns.
A damaged boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers landed on the Malaysian island of Langkawi on June 8, with survivors telling authorities that dozens had perished on the months-long journey from Bangladesh.
Advocates fear that these people, 269 of whom are currently detained, will also eventually be returned to sea by Malaysian authorities.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said that: “While Myanmar remains ultimately responsible for the Rohingya refugees’ plight, Malaysia and Thailand should stop wearing blinders about the immediate risks and suffering that they face at sea.”
In April, Bangladesh’s coast guard rescued almost 400 starving Rohingya who had been drifting at sea for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia.