Indonesia urges regional effort to address crisis of Rohingya stranded at sea

Tria Dianti
Indonesia urges regional effort to address crisis of Rohingya stranded at sea Rohingya refugees rescued by fishermen are seen on a boat behind a patrol boat near the coast of Seunuddon beach in North Aceh, Indonesia, June 24, 2020.
[Rahmad/Antara Foto/via Reuters]

Jakarta on Thursday called for a regional effort to address the crisis of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea after escaping from their homeland of Myanmar, where they are persecuted and stateless, or from crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Southeast Asian nations should cooperate on rescue operations so that the task doesn’t fall only to Indonesia, a foreign ministry official said, at a time when the United Nations has cited an “alarming rise” in the death toll of Rohingya making perilous sea crossings in people-smuggling boats.

“In the future, it is necessary to have regional cooperation on rescue operations, a task not only for Indonesia but also countries in the region,” Achsanul Habib, the ministry’s director for human rights and humanitarian affairs, told a news conference.

Last year was the deadliest since 2014 for Rohingya attempting such sea voyages, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said Wednesday.

“UNHCR has recorded an alarming rise in the death toll. At least 348 individuals died or went missing at sea in 2022, making it one of the deadliest years since 2014,” spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told reporters in Geneva.

UNHCR said it feared that one boat with around 180 refugees on board had sunk some time in December.

More than 3,500 Rohingya attempted sea crossings in 39 boats in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in 2022, according to the latest UNHCR data, Mantoo said. This represented a 360% increase from 2021, when some 700 people made similar journeys.

The refugees board boats as they try to escape from sprawling refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh or their nearby home state of Rakhine on the Myanmar side of the border.

Since December, at least three boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees have landed in northwestern Indonesia’s Aceh province. Two of these boats had been at sea for weeks, and some 40 people had perished on them, officials said.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said this month that arrivals of Rohingya refugees in Aceh had surged last year to 574 people. By comparison, between 2020 and 2022, officials recorded the arrival of 1,155 Rohingya refugees in Aceh.

Motives to flee

According to the ministry’s Achsanul, their main reason for fleeing to Southeast Asia has changed.

“Their motive is no longer [fleeing] persecution, but [to find] jobs, economic and family reunion,” he said. 

The refugees were in touch with NGOs, sharing their coordinates at sea with the aim of pressuring governments to mount search and rescue operations, he added. 

“This shows that the movements of the Rohingya boat people were known to various parties, including UNHCR,” he said.  

UNHCR responded to this charge in a statement to BenarNews.

The agency said many of the Rohingya stranded in Aceh had obtained refugee status in Bangladesh and therefore had contact information for its staff and NGOs. 

“When their boat is in danger of sinking, in such an emergency, they may decide to contact these organizations for help, which is a very common thing to do,” it said.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not grant refugees the right to take up formal employment and attend regular school. 

On Wednesday, the U.N. agency said that most boats departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the growing sense of desperation amongst Rohingya in those two countries. 

“Those who have disembarked report that they undertook these dangerous sea journeys in an effort to find protection, security, family reunification, and livelihoods in other countries,” UNHCR’s Mantoo said. 

“Among them are victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children, and survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence.”

Amnesty International has said the departures highlight the deteriorating situation in Myanmar following the February 2021 military coup, as well as the dire conditions at refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.

About 1 million Rohingya, including about 740,000 who fled Myanmar during a brutal military offensive in Rakhine in 2017, live in the crowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern Bangladeshi district by the Myanmar border.

Many Rohingya have grown desperate because they see no hope of being repatriated to Myanmar, which is convulsed with violence following the military coup, human rights advocates and NGOs in the region have said. 

The Rohingya in Bangladesh also cannot work or properly educate their children at these camps.

Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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