December 19, 2023
JAKARTA – The central government must help the people and government of Aceh deal with the ongoing influx of Rohingya refugees and, if necessary, take over their humanitarian burden. The beleaguered Rohingya, our Southeast Asian neighbors, have fled their homes and shelters to escape systematic ethnic cleansing and seek a better future.
While no one party, not even the United Nations, can solve the plight of the Rohingya anytime soon, Indonesia takes pride in its humanitarian spirit – a pillar of its state ideology – and has a responsibility to help, at least in the interim.
Indonesia is the de facto leader of ASEAN and its leadership is needed most by people of an ASEAN member state who have endured persecution, discrimination and marginalization even in their homeland.
Over 1.2 million Rohingya have been displaced in Myanmar since military violence against them began in 2017. They were driven mostly to refugee camps in Bangladesh, which now hosts nearly a million Rohingya refugees.
The minority Muslim ethnic group has been subject to human rights violations in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, whose constitution does not recognize them as citizens. And the spirit of Islamic brotherhood contributed to Aceh residents’ acceptance of the initial Rohingya arrivals.
It was saddening to hear Foreign Ministry spokesman Lalu Muhamad Iqbal claim that Indonesia had no obligation to help the Rohingyas because it was not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. He also blamed human trafficking syndicates for the tragedy.
If our legal obligations are unclear, our moral ones are not. While it is true that refugees have caused headaches for many governments, we cannot just leave them stranded or send them out to perish at sea.
In fact, as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international laws, Indonesia is obliged to rescue people in distress at sea, including Rohingya, and help them to the nearest place of safety.
Article 98 of the 1982 UNCLOS, which concerns the duty to render assistance, stipulates that every state is required to (a) render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress if informed of their need of assistance, insofar as such action may reasonably be expected.
Indonesia, like all coastal states, is obligated promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service for safety on and over the sea.
The UN Human Rights Council has estimated that as of the middle of 2023, some 110 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide, with over 36.4 million of them refugees. The majority come from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia, Sudan and our neighbor Myanmar.
For the last few weeks, people in Aceh have tried to push Rohingya arrivals back to sea and have been telling them never to return to the province. The Acehnese people have demanded that the government completely take over the responsibility for caring for the Rohingya.
International agencies once praised Aceh for its people’s kindness and hospitality to the Rohingya, who have been reaching the shores of the country’s westernmost province in batches since 2015. The agencies cited the local maritime customary tradition as an ideal example of the practice of assisting anyone in trouble at sea.
But after years of goodwill, the local people and governments now say the refugees are an excessive burden. They note that some of the refugees have committed crimes or have fled their refugee camps. The Acehnese people have apparently reached the limit of their forbearance.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should immediately instruct the national authorities to take full responsibility for helping the Rohingya people. In the name of humanity, we cannot cast them off to drown at sea. At the very least, the government can continue to provide temporary shelter to them as we did for Vietnamese refugees from the 1970s to the 1990s.