Sunday 25 February 2018

Indonesia 'has helped too much'

An ethnic Rohingya boy queues up for food at a temporary shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia (AP)
An ethnic Rohingya boy queues up for food at a temporary shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia (AP)
Foreign minister Retno Marsudi says Indonesia has 'given more than it should' to help migrants stranded on boats by human traffickers (AP)

Indonesia has "given more than it should" to help hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded on boats by human traffickers, its foreign minister said.

The comments came a day before Retno Marsudi was to meet with her counterparts from other countries feeling the brunt of the humanitarian crisis.

Ms Marsudi said that at Wednesday's meeting with Malaysian and Thai officials, she will discuss how to solve the migrant problem with help from their countries of origin, the UN refugee agency and the International Office for Migration.

"This irregular migration is not the problem of one or two nations. This is a regional problem which also happens in other places. This is also a global problem," Ms Marsudi told reporters after a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace.

Ms Marsudi said Indonesia has sheltered more than 1,300 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who washed on to Aceh and North Sumatra provinces last week. The first batch came on May 10 with 558 people on a boat, and the second with 807 on three boats landed on Friday.

Even before the crisis, nearly 12,000 migrants were being sheltered in Indonesia awaiting resettlement, she said, with most of those Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma. No more than 500 of those migrants are resettled in third countries each year, she said.

"Indonesia has given more than it should do as a non-member-state of the refugee convention of 1951," she said.

The crisis emerged this month as governments in the region began cracking down on human trafficking. Some captains of trafficking boats abandoned their vessels - and hundreds of migrants - at sea. About 3,000 of the migrants have reached land in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, but all three countries have pushed some ships away. Aid groups estimate that thousands more migrants - who fled persecution in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh - are stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Burma's co-operation is seen as vital to solving the crisis, but its government has already cast doubt on whether it will attend a conference to be hosted by Thailand on May 29 that is to include 15 Asian nations affected by the emergency.

Like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have not signed the UN convention, which would obligate them to accept some refugees. All have said they can longer accept Rohingya; Malaysia, the country many Rohingya try to reach, already has tens of thousands of them.

On Monday, Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla said the country will help those who end up on its shores, but "would be more active in helping Rohingya migrants if there is an international pledge to accept them in a third country".

Mr Kalla, speaking to reporters on a visit to southern Borneo, noted that the UNHCR set up a refugee camp on the Indonesia island of Galang to process tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Vietnamese, from 1979 to 1986.

The Philippines has signed the UN refugee convention, but its justice secretary, Leila de Lima, said that genuine asylum seekers would need to be sorted from those "just seeking greener pastures" before Manila would take in migrants. That process can take years.

In the meantime, she said, "at most we can offer to these affected countries some kind of an assistance in terms of offering our experience, our best practices in handling refugees and also stateless persons because we are a signatory to these conventions and we have considerable experience and track record in that area".

"Thankfully the Philippines is not affected by this problem, by this issue. The so-called boat people are not anywhere near the waters of the Philippines," Ms de Lima told reporters after meeting with UNHCR representative Bernard Kerblat.

The Philippines may be able to provide rescue boats if needed to provide aid to those aboard trafficking boats, Ms de Lima said.

"We're talking here about human beings drifting at sea and gradually dying. A number of them have died already because of the situation that they are in," Ms de Lima said. "As a community of nations, we cannot just sit idly by and allow that to happen."

Mr Kerblat said the UNHCR is working with governments in the region "to put together ideas and the basic message here is what can be done collectively to save lives".

"We're calling on all the people of goodwill around the world to join forces to look at ways and means about how to solve this crisis. It's not easy. There's no magic touch."

In a joint statement, the UNHCR, International Organisation for Migration and other UN groups said they "strongly urge the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to protect migrants and refugees stranded on vessels ... to facilitate safe disembarkation, and to give priority to saving lives, protecting rights and respecting human dignity".

Press Association

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