Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | 14:41 WIB

300 Rohingya land on Aceh’s unwelcoming shores A call for desperate measures to Indonesia’s refugee crisis

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Jakarta, IO – Since November this year, Aceh — the easternmost province of Indonesia — has seen over 1,600 Rohingya refugees arrive by boats, coming in nine waves (UNHCR, 2023), and more are expected. Regardless of the alleged involvement of human trafficking rings who exploit the misery of vulnerable refugees, they are already in Indonesia and must be taken care of immediately. 

Indonesia’s policy is based on humanitarian principles, part of the global commitment to uphold human rights. Presidential Regulation 125/2016 serves as a basis for measures and procedures to handle refugees who enter Indonesian waters due to emergency situations. However, when faced with widespread rejection from the local communities, the news of which has been circulating widely on social media, it is imperative that the Government be more careful in dealing with a sensitive issue and come up with more comprehensive and permanent solutions to stem the refugee tide before it turns into a crisis. 

The problem actually has been around since 1977, but it became a territorial issue in 2009. The Andaman Sea refugee crisis in 2015 marked the beginning of their exodus to the shores of Aceh. Their movements show that they are not directly from Rakhine, Myanmar, but from Bangladesh and those who came in the last month have been registered as refugees in Cox Bazar. 

While Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, the country is a party to various global and regional human rights covenants. Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution also recognizes and respects the right of every human to live in dignity. Presidential Regulation 125/2016 is the basis for the establishment of the task force to mitigate refugee issues in Indonesia. The edict, which was drafted amid the emergency situation at that time, appeared to have many limitations and did not address many of the needs as warranted by the situation, especially with regard to Rohingya refugees. 

In fact, most of the responsibilities are delegated to the local governments, whose capacity and capability infrastructure-wise is limited. As a result, the implementation on the ground tended to potentially violate the human rights of the refugees, as well as the local communities, many of whom felt their lives have been disrupted, while some were afraid to help, for fear of being criminalized as was reported in 2017. 

The anomalous escalation of rejection by the Acehnese and the Indonesian public in cyberspace against the entry of Rohingya refugees is interesting to study, considering that since 2009 they have landed many times in Aceh and the Acehnese people have always helped them, as instructed by their local wisdom. This anomalous condition can be seen as a good opportunity to accelerate efforts to resolve the Rohingya refugee problem in Indonesia, which many believe can also be applied to other refugees in Indonesia. This is certainly viable, as Indonesia has the potential and capability, by sharing the burdens and responsibilities nationally, regionally and multilaterally. 

This article will begin by explaining the extreme vulnerability experienced by Rohingya refugees for decades, then delving into what lessons from history can been drawn in the decision-making process. Therefore, it is important to consider alternative solutions that are structured around sharing burdens and responsibilities in the design of refugee management in Indonesia. 

Multiple victimization 

Long before the Rohingya lost their citizenship, there was open conflict between the minority Rohingya and the majority Burmese, which led to the expulsion of the former several times. In 1982, things got worse for the Rohingya, when Myanmar introduced a Citizenship Act that revoked their citizenship, on the grounds that they only joined Myanmar (then known as Burma) after 1825. Under the law, full citizenship was based on membership of designated national races and the Rohingya ethnic group are not recognized as one them. This effectively made them foreigners. Since then, they have increasingly lost their basic rights as citizens, and even suffered from systematic expulsion and genocide in extreme ways. Their only choice was to find refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. Many of them, especially children, suffered from malnutrition and widespread famine and tens of thousands were reportedly murdered. 

They have endured successive military attacks, forced labor, rape, torture and murder up to this day. There was a forced repatriation from Bangladesh in 1992, but it was resisted by residents of Arakan (the historical geographical name of Rakhine State, Myanmar). Moreover, at that time, not many of them had refugee status, making them even more prone to exploitation and violence. 

The situation has barely changed since. Even now, the Rohingya do not have access to education, health care or employment, forcing them to fully rely on international assistance. Their attempt to leave Rakhine or Bangladesh is often thwarted, as happened they were turned back by Malaysia and forced to return to Bangladesh. Many died after being adrift in the open sea for months. 

In 2021, there were approximately 931,000 registered Rohingya refugees living in Ukhia refugee camp and Teknaf Upazila of Cox’s Bazar District, the largest refugee settlement in the world. Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Ukhia is the largest and most densely-populated refugee camp in the world, housing more than 630,000 Rohingya refugees (UNHCR, 2023). Nearly 30,000 registered Rohingya refugees have been relocated and living in houses on Bhasan Char, an island off the coast of Bangladesh. They rely entirely on international humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs (ISCG et al. 2023). 

Incidents of violence and security within the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar have increased since early 2022. This has raised safety concerns for Rohingya refugees, including exposure to general and physical insecurity and violence against women and children. A lack of employment and educational opportunities exacerbates their plight, as well as funding cuts, that fuel fears of food insecurity, making the situation more dire. In addition, the area is riddled with gang and armed group activity. The escalation of incidents of violence, terror, murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, arson, human smuggling and illegal drug trafficking in recent years have forced many to leave Cox’s Bazar and embark on the perilous seaborne journeys to Malaysia or Indonesia. An estimated 5,852 people made the sea voyage from January 2022 to October 2023, 45 percent of whom were women and children. 

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