Indonesia asks UNHCR to persuade countries to accept Rohingya refugees

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Indonesia asks UNHCR to persuade countries to accept Rohingya refugees Rohingya refugees rest on a sidewalk outside a government office after they were refused shelter by local residents following their arrival in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Dec.11, 2023.
[Riska Munawarah]

Indonesia is urging the United Nations refugee agency to find third countries for resettling Rohingya refugees who have sought shelter in the Southeast Asian nation, the foreign minister said Wednesday.

Retno Marsudi said she met on Monday with Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees who heads UNHCR, and emphasized the need for a collective approach to the refugee crisis, after more than 1,500 Rohingya had arrived in Indonesia by boat since November.

“I told UNHCR in the meeting that they should continue to urge states [that are] party to the refugee convention to start accepting resettlement,” Retno told a news conference from Geneva. 

“The U.N. high commissioner understood the challenges faced by Indonesia and UNHCR will try its best to help solve this problem … by providing assistance to support the lives of the refugees,” Indonesia’s top diplomat told a news conference in Geneva.

Retno did not specify whether UNHCR’s assistance would go towards the Rohingya in Indonesia.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (left) speaks with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in Geneva, Dec. 11, 2023. [Courtesy X via @Menlu_RI]

A UNHCR Indonesia spokesperson in Indonesia, Mitra Salima Suryono, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BenarNews.

Retno was in Geneva, the headquarters of the UNHCR, for talks on the crisis in Gaza and Israel at events to mark International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

Her plea to the U.N. refugee agency came after some residents of Aceh province in Indonesia, where most Rohingya boats have arrived in recent weeks, rejected the refugees and refused to let them land. 

The Indonesian government then agreed to provide the Rohingya temporary shelter. On Sunday, another 400-odd Rohingya arrived on a boat that reached Aceh, a province at the northwestern tip of Sumatra island.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has a long history of hosting refugees from various conflicts. It allows refugees to stay temporarily, while they wait for a third country to resettle them, a process that can take years.

UNHCR has said that about 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers were in Indonesia as of June. They are  mostly from Afghanistan, Somalia, Myanmar and other countries, and face uncertain futures as prospects of being resettled in a third country are increasingly dim.

Refugees in Indonesia have no access to formal education and jobs.

For the Rohingya, Indonesia is a gateway to Malaysia, which is a top destination in Southeast Asia for migrant-workers from many South Asian and Southeast Asian nations.

Filippo Grandi (left), the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, talks with a Rohingya refugee during a visit to Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sept. 23, 2017. [Dominique Faget/AFP]

Last week, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that an entire criminal network was in place to smuggle hundreds of Rohingya into Aceh. He promised strict action against human traffickers.

In Indonesia, the smuggling of people is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Police arrested three people in Aceh last week on suspicion of smuggling six Rohingya refugees from a shelter, local media reported. 

They had planned to transport the refugees by bus to Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, to allow them to travel to Malaysia, police reportedly said. 

Since 2017, about 740,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and settled in Bangladesh refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar after the Burmese military carried out a brutal crackdown that the U.N. called “ethnic cleansing.”

Human rights groups say the Rohingya refugees had undertaken and continue to take perilous sea journeys to escape the deteriorating situation in Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021 and the worsening conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

ASEAN efforts ‘have always failed’

Still, few countries are willing to open their doors to large numbers of refugees, said Poltak Partogi Nainggolan, a researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency. 

“On the other hand, efforts to find a joint solution through ASEAN have always failed,” he told BenarNews, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar and Indonesia are members. 

Last week, local rights groups gave the administration a severe tongue lashing after it said it was contemplating a plan to return the Rohingya to Myanmar. 

But Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, had said any return, if it happened, would be through the U.N.

Amnesty International in Indonesia approved of Indonesia’s continued coordination with UNHCR on the Rohingya issue.

“But Indonesia must not shirk its responsibility to ensure that the refugees have a decent and safe place to live, free from threats of violence,” Usman Hamid, executive director of the human rights watchdog group, told BenarNews. 

“[I]t must be committed to protecting the right to life and freedom for everyone, as mandated by its 1945 Constitution.” 

Some Indonesians, in comments and content posted on social media, have accused the Rohingya of being colonizers and demanded their deportation. 

The controversy has been fueled by misinformation and propaganda on social media platforms such as X and TikTok, where fake accounts and anti-Rohingya posts have gone viral. 

Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to the report.


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