ASEAN Faces Pressure After Indonesian Fishermen Rescue Rohingya Refugees At Sea

On Thursday, June 25, Indonesian fishermen pulled 94 Rohingyas, including 30 children, to shore with the aid of maritime officials from Sumatra Island. Local authorities in the Indonesian province of Aceh had initially refused to take in those who were floating out at sea for five months, citing fears that the passengers carried the novel coronavirus. Although police chief Eko Hartanto intended to send the Rohingyas out to sea rather than provide temporary shelter, his position softened after facing protests by angered residents in Lhokseumawe, Aceh. After undergoing a series of medical tests and checks, the asylum seekers were found to have no positive cases of COVID-19 among them. Yet, the director of Aceh-based Geutanyoe Foundation Rima Shah Putra told the ABC that the Rohingya women faced other medical issues, such as itchiness and hygiene-related issues, instead. 

An AFP reporter who was onsite revealed that residents of the Sumatran province gathered on the beach to cheer the move. According to Putra, it is part of local customary law to assist anybody experiencing distress at sea. In an interview with Al Jazeera, fisherman Aples Kuari explained why they decided to help out after the authorities’ inaction. “It’s purely for humanitarian reasons…we were sad seeing kids and pregnant women stranded at sea,” he claimed. Geutanyoe Foundation director added that the Acehnese could empathize with those who were stranded at sea after encountering its own history of inter-ethnic conflict and suffering a devastating tsunami in 2004 which displaced 500,000 people. 

Their actions garnered the attention of Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director Usman Hamid who said the Aceh community had shown the “best of humanity.” He continued by shifting the onus to government officials and country leaders saying, “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.” It is also important that Australia engages in the conversation, seeing as the rescued Rohingyas expressed their desire to continue travelling to Australia, according to North Aceh district head Muhammad Thaib. 

With limited capacities to provide for a large number of refugees, local leaders in Aceh called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to rethink their approach to the refugee and migrant communities. Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia director Brad Adams has echoed this sentiment, saying in light of the 36th ASEAN Summit, “Southeast Asian leaders should urgently adopt concrete plants for addressing the crisis facing ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar and abroad.” Rather than prioritizing a hasty repatriation, as was decided upon during a meeting between ASEAN foreign ministers on June 24, HRW’s statement called for the end of abuses and the provision of justice for the Rohingya. This comes after last year’s Preliminary Need Assessment for repatriating nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, a report drafted without first consulting the refugees themselves. 

Convening virtually on June 26, the 10 ASEAN leaders discussed the matter to some degree. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin claimed that Malaysia, which currently has the second largest community of Rohingya refugees after Bangladesh, can no longer take in asylum-seekers from Myanmar following dwindling resources as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since May 1st, Malaysian border enforcement patrols have allegedly pushed back 22 boats carrying Rohingya refugees, who are not recognized as such in Malaysia as they have not ratified the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.  According to HRW, traffickers on boats sent back out to sea have demanded additional payment from asylum-seekers’ families. After rescuing one pushed back boat, the Bangladesh Coast Guard learned of the approximate 100 Rohingya that may have died while at sea due to inhumane conditions. 

Thailand has similarly indicated that it would deny entry to Rohingya boats. So far, 35 Rohingya asylum seekers have been arrested at the shared border of Thailand and Myanmar. The sending back of boats mirrors the 2015 crisis when thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded in the Andaman Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Although several leaders in the region pledged to protect the rights of migrants under the Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting of the International Labour Organization and the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime, their intentions have not been fully realized. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, it is imperative that ASEAN countries work collectively and with the consultation of refugees in order to better seek justice for those communities. If they proceed with their repatriation policy, ASEAN leaders should put pressure on Myanmar to grant the Rohingya freedom of movement and citizenship to ensure they can return voluntarily and safely. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should also be granted access to any Rohingya asylum seekers who arrive by boat or over land to protect them under international standards and keep them informed.