Jakarta is treading carefully between urging inclusive talks and shared responsibility in the Rohingya response, with Western powers looking to raise funds for the refugee crisis this week just as another boatload of asylum seekers enters Indonesian waters.
The US, the UK, the EU and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were set to co-host a donor conference on Thursday to promote support for Rohingya refugees and host countries amid significant funding gaps made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands ethnic Rohingya – mostly Muslims – have fled Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh to avoid persecution following a massive military crackdown in 2017, which UN investigators described as bearing “genocidal intent”. Similar pledging conferences have been held annually since then.
As critics point to the slow response to the crisis, Indonesia continues to seek an alternative to the ineffective isolating of fellow ASEAN member Myanmar, which denies the allegations.
Febrian Ruddyard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ director-general for multilateral cooperation, said recently: “What Indonesia tries to avoid the most is that a conference is put together that isn’t inclusive, meaning that if we want to talk about the Rohingya, we [have to] talk about their country of origin [first], and then the people [in other places or] in transit.
“Whenever I think about the aid – whatever it may be – it becomes something of concern for us when it is not inclusive.”
Indonesian diplomats have continuously sought to find a balance between engaging Myanmar critically and employing constructive solutions, to the behest of many international critics.
It has chosen a patient approach to understanding the complex ethnic makeup and history of Myanmar, a stance not shared by many in the West, but the pressure is on to shore up clear results.
Febrian insisted that the Rohingya issue was first and foremost an effort to repatriate people who left their country and provide them with a security guarantee to return.
He said: “How can we exercise that which must involve various parties, especially when the country that will play a very major role – Myanmar itself – is not involved?
“We can measure the seriousness of a meeting through the extent of its inclusiveness. Is it going to be just another ‘name and shame’ event or do we really want to solve the problem?”
The latest figures show that some 860,000 Rohingyas stay in camps in Cox’s Bazar, making it the world’s largest refugee settlement. Other countries in the region together host up to an additional 150,000 refugees, while an estimated 600,000 still live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Dominic Raab said in a statement: “The Rohingya people have faced horrific brutality and were forced to flee their homes in the worst circumstances imaginable.
“We have taken action against the architects of this systemic violence, including through sanctions, and we will continue to hold those responsible to account.”
Meanwhile on Monday, Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid urged Indonesian authorities to rescue approximately 250 ethnic Rohingya people who were reportedly sighted near Aceh.
He said in a statement: “We received reports that the authorities are planning to deny them. This cannot be justified. Refusing entry and sending them back to the high seas is against Indonesia’s international obligations.
“Their boat must be allowed to enter and land on a nearby shore and the refugees must be saved and provided basic needs.”
Unlike most countries, including the US, the UK and Australia, Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which means it is not legally required to take in and take care of refugees.
However, in the last few months Indonesia has rescued and taken in 395 Rohingya people who were adrift at sea on cramped boats. The first group was rescued by fishermen in Aceh on June 24, while the second arrived on September 7.
Indonesia has repeatedly said it has gone above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to taking in refugees, particularly the Rohingya.
However, authorities have so far failed to act on illicit trafficking operations in Southeast Asia, which the refugees often return to when they want to leave the transit country.
Achsanul Habib, the foreign ministry’s director for human rights, said: “From Indonesia’s perspective, I think we will raise our concerns in terms of the refugee management in our country, not only for the Rohingya refugees who just arrived recently but in the overall handling of refugees in transit countries like ours, who really need the existing mandate to be carried out firmly and seriously by state parties to the 1951 convention, as well as the active role of the UNHCR as a refugee agency.”
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK