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Asylum seekers at risk in Indonesia

12 November 20150 comments

Indonesia remains a difficult place for asylum seekers with the incidence of violence against them rising and their official status in limbo.

More than a thousand Rohingya asylum seekers in the northern province of Aceh still do not know their fate as an agreement granting them refuge edges towards expiry in May next year (2016).

Asylum seekers are at risk of violence in Indonesia

Asylum seekers are at risk of violence in Indonesia

And at least 30 asylum seekers hailing mainly from Afghanistan had to be relocated from their temporary shelter in Yogyakarta after an anti-Shiite mob stormed into their compound last week.

Local reports said that the Afghan asylum seekers had decorated a hall inside the Ambarbinangun Youth Center in Bantul district, where they had been staying for the last month, with long, black cloth bearing Arabic religious writing.

After hearing of the religious tokens, dozens of men reportedly stormed the compound, telling the group of men, women and teenagers to leave the neighborhood “for proselytizing Shiite teachings,” the reports said.

Around 50 officers were deployed to the centre to evacuate the group.

Meanwhile the the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority from Myanmar, who were allowed to enter Indonesia’s Aceh region in May this year during the regional migrant crisis, fear they will be expelled and forced to return to Myanmar, according  to human rights group Amnesty International.

“Given that asylum places available usually far outnumber applications – and it can take years to process an asylum request – it is uncertain where the Rohingya can go next,” an Amnesty report said.

“They are now facing an uncertain future. Indonesia has provided much-needed support… However, the Rohingya still do not know if they will be permitted to stay past their anticipated departure date of May 2016, or if they will be resettled in another country.”

There are about one million Rohingya living in Myanmar, but the country does not recognise them as one of its ethnic minorities and refers to them as “Bengali” migrants.

In 2012, sectarian violence drove many from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state into camps where food and medical attention is scarce, and their mobility severely restricted.

Despairing for the future, thousands attempt to reach Malaysia or other parts of Asia on boats run by human smugglers. They are joined by economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking work. Many fall into the hands of human traffickers and are sold on for exploitation or held ransom.

In April, a Thai crackdown on trafficking networks led to boatloads of starving migrants being abandoned out at sea. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia responded by turning away the boats until the latter two countries reached an agreement to give the migrants refuge for one year.

In the meantime, the living conditions in Aceh are not ideal. In several locations, Amnesty observed “poor standards of sanitation, insufficient protection from the elements, as well as unsanitary cooking facilities”.

“Psychosocial support appears minimal,” the report said.

The Amnesty report said local gangs had entered some of the sites and beat the Rohingya up.

“Security guards have been accused of abuse and intimidation, and local male police officers have been accused of inappropriate pat-downs of female Rohingya asylum-seekers and local police are investigating allegations of a rape,” Amnesty said.

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has appealed for US$13 million (S$18 million) to deal with the migrant crisis, only 20 per cent of that amount has been raised by August.

The report urged the international community to share responsibility for aiding the asylum seekers.

Australia has been criticised for refusing to resettle any of the Rohingya who reached Indonesia after fleeing persecution in Myanmar during the refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia earlier this year.

The Amnesty report says Rohingya refugees were killed or severely beaten by human traffickers if their families failed to pay ransoms and kept in hellish conditions at sea.

It says there are fears that hundreds, maybe thousands, more people may have perished at sea than the 370 deaths between January and June estimated by the UN.

Amnesty said Indonesia should be recognised for housing hundreds of vulnerable people in Aceh despite initially pushing back overcrowded vessels and preventing people from landing.

Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to offer temporary shelter to 7000 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees on the proviso they would be resettled by the international community within a year.

However Amnesty International said there were “serious unanswered questions about a long-term solution”.

“The central government has not yet confirmed whether the Rohingya arrivals from May 2015 will be permitted to stay past the anticipated departure date of May 2016, even though the determination of their asylum claims and resettlement applications will likely take years,” the report said.

“The proximity and prevalence of trafficking networks in this part of Southeast Asia give rise that those who took the Rohingya on boats did so to traffic them into exploitative labour on land or sea,” the report says.

The Amnesty report, titled ‘Deadly Journeys’, warns that with the monsoon over and a new sailing season already underway, a fresh crisis could be looming in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

“Governments in the region must take coordinated action against human trafficking in a way that does not put people’s lives or human rights at risk,” the report says.

It also calls on the international community to provide technical assistance, funding and resettlement commitments.

The report recommends Australia reverses its policy of refusing to resettle refugees who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after July 1 last year.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist