Asean's capacity and rejection challenges amidst Rohingya crisis

28 Dec 2023 09:02pm
University students demonstrate against the arrival of Rohingya refugees in front of the People's Representative Council (DPR) in Banda Aceh on Dec 27 - Photo by AFP
University students demonstrate against the arrival of Rohingya refugees in front of the People's Representative Council (DPR) in Banda Aceh on Dec 27 - Photo by AFP

SHAH ALAM - The Rohingya refugee crisis in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia needs more than just a short-term relief.

While immediate assistance was important, long-term and sustainable solutions that addressed economic burden, social integration and potential security risks were needed.

The immediate needs of refugees and the long-term impact on host communities should also be included in the approach.

Universiti Malaya Peace and Conflict Studies expert Dr Muhammad Danial Azman said one of the major concerns was the lack of focus on durable solutions for the reintegration of Rohingya refugees.

“The Rohingyas have not received positive and impactful assistance due to the existence of policy gaps, informal economic crimes and exploitation by transnational criminal groups operating across Asean countries.

“For instance, the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) branches in Indonesia and Malaysia are only effective in issuing (identification) cards to the displaced individuals and managing the influx of refugees.

“However, they have been unable to implement realistic action plans to ensure that the Rohingya refugees, who are temporarily seeking refuge in Indonesia or Malaysia, can transit to another country. This other country should not only recognise the UN Refugee Convention but also be willing to absorb these Rohingya diasporas," he told Sinar Daily.

He also questioned why the UNHCR did not realistically portray the situation and instead expected an unrealistic burden of humanitarian relief to be shouldered by transit countries that were not even part of the UN Refugee Convention.

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Danial added that the Rohingya issue was no longer just a humanitarian matter.

He said while the Rohingya refugees needed help, the existing capacities of many Asean states, past and present (including Indonesia and Malaysia), have limitations in addressing their humanitarian needs.

He stressed that the likelihood of rejections by many neighbouring Muslim-majority Asean countries, including Indonesia, to accommodate more Rohingya boats offshore was expected and reflected the reality that the current system was no longer suitable for absorbing a large number of Rohingya refugees.

Danial pointed out that the real blind spot laid in the fact that the local economy could not sustain the long-term needs and livelihood of the Rohingyas and the locals themselves were not prepared or economically capable of supporting these long-term requirements.

He emphasised the shortcomings of international agencies advocating for the humanitarian and human security needs of the Rohingya refugees in Asean countries.

He said these agencies have also failed to recognise the reality that they not only fell short in transferring the Rohingyas to their intended destinations, where the policy ecosystem was more accommodating adding that the Refugee Convention was enforced in those destination countries, but not in the temporary and transit countries like Indonesia.

The prevailing narrative about the Rohingya refugees in this region has significantly shifted from saving strangers to avoiding unintended consequences, he said.

He said the Rohingya refugees, being permanently stateless, unrecognised by local laws, lacking social security support and unable to be absorbed by the formal local economic sectors, could lead to issues such as labour exploitation, involvement in criminal activities and illegal employment sectors.

This, in turn, posed significant costs and risks of crime threats, economic challenges and social problems to the well-being of the local community, he added.

“For instance, in the Malaysian scene, recent crime rates and growing reported cases of Rohingya’s involvement in major police raids, police chases and the killing of drug mobs on the street, the mini Dhaka fiasco in Pudu and local concerns about Pasar Selayang’s (wet market) hygiene, along with massive violations of local government and municipal regulations involving the majority of undocumented and UN refugee cardholders (Rohingyas), can no longer be denied.

“The hard choice between preventing long-term harm and short-term reliefs can no longer be ignored as a real prisoner's dilemma choice for many locals who have to make decisions about the Rohingyas.

“This hiatus of lesser evil also appeals to the greater local moral consciousness of preventing more harm and future risk of pushing more innocent Rohingyas to be involved in economic crimes, sexual exploitation and inhumane treatments or modern forced labour in the informal economy, which could not be entirely eradicated when there are no real jobs for them,” Danial added.

He emphasised that this harsh reality explained the paradox of unwelcome gestures from many locals in central Asean offshore towards the reception of new waves of Rohingya boats.

He said the intention was not to play the morality card by suggesting a lack of relief and care for the humanitarian needs of the Rohingyas.

He said without a doubt, these displaced victims needed help.

However, many Asean countries that were not signatories to international agreements have no concrete guarantees for a suitable ecosystem to reintegrate the Rohingya refugees, expecting their country's position to serve as a transit hub.

Danial suggested that the more pertinent and valid question was to urge the UNHCR to disclose its realistic plan for transferring these refugees to a country willing to welcome them.

“It would also be interesting to inquire further about the growing reluctance from countries recognising the Refugee Convention and having active social security policies to curb the trend and number of Rohingya transiting from Malaysia or Indonesia to their countries,” he said.

Danial was commenting on the incident where hundreds of university students in Indonesia stormed a temporary shelter for more than 100 Rohingya refugees on Wednesday, forcing them to leave in the latest rejection of the persecuted Myanmar minority.

It was reported that the students who wore jackets with different universities' insignias, entered a government function hall in the capital Banda Aceh where 137 Rohingya refugees were staying.

A video footage of the incident also showed students chanting "kick them out" and "reject Rohingyas in Aceh" and the students were also seen kicking the Rohingyas' belongings.

The incident reflected the growing rejection of Rohingya refugees arriving in Aceh, with over 1,500 refugees arriving since mid-November, the largest influx in eight years.

Some locals argued that the Rohingya refugees strained resources and occasionally clashed with the community.

Indonesia, which was not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, emphasised regional cooperation for resettlement.

Meanwhile, UNHCR strongly condemned the forced eviction of Rohingya refugees in Bandar Aceh calling it a disturbing incident resulting from online misinformation campaigns.

UNHCR urged urgent action to be taken by local authorities to protect the vulnerable refugee families, emphasising their deep concern for safety.

The agency noted that a coordinated online campaign spreading hate speech and misinformation against refugees, undermined Indonesia's efforts to save lives at sea.

UNHCR also appealed for public awareness, cautioning against false information and highlighting the refugees' status as victims of persecution and conflict, saved by Indonesia's humanitarian tradition.