JAKARTA • A new Rohingya refugee crisis brewing off Indonesia’s northern coast casts a long shadow over the Asean Summit, with critics describing Asean countries’ handling of the stranded refugees as “totally shameful” in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Leaders of Asean member states met virtually for the landmark summit yesterday, where they were to discuss regional issues including the fate of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea who face widespread rejection from countries on account of coronavirus concerns.
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said fishermen and the authorities in northern Aceh rescued 94 Rohingya this week, insisting that “based on humanitarian considerations”, they would be given emergency assistance. They had gone without food for several days, officials said.
But beyond giving the Rohingya food and temporary shelter, the authorities are still considering sending them back out to sea.
“After repairing the ship, we will also provide fuel for the ship and then we are planning for the ship to be pushed back… to get out of Indonesian waters,” Lilawangsa military command post commander Colonel Inf Sumirating Baskoro said, as quoted by Kompas.com.
The rescue came as a Malaysian coast guard official said dozens of Rohingya were believed to have died and their bodies thrown overboard during a four-month boat journey that landed on Langkawi this month with 269 survivors.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for Rohingya, but Malaysia, which does not recognise refugee status, has recently turned away boats amid rising anger towards foreigners who have been accused of spreading the coronavirus and taking up scarce state funds.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin yesterday said at the Asean Summit that the country can no longer take in the Rohingya.
“We can no longer take more as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Tan Sri Muhyiddin said. “Yet, Malaysia is unfairly expected to do more to accommodate incoming refugees.”
He urged the United Nations refugee agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries. He also called for more efforts to combat the trafficking of Rohingya, who are increasingly at risk for exploitation, slavery and recruitment by militants.
“Asean must do more to help Myanmar, and Myanmar must also do more to help itself for this crisis to be put behind us,” he added.
Asean countries’ reluctance to accept the refugees has led observers to sound the alarm on a potential repeat of the 2015 crisis, when tens of thousands of Rohingya fled persecution in Myanmar in overcrowded boats heading towards Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Nearly 25,000 were stranded at sea after states cracked down on the smuggling networks that serviced these people, but they were largely saved after the three countries finally agreed to take them in.
Asean has promised to lead a regional response to help Myanmar repatriate the refugees, but repeated attempts have largely failed.
The chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a Malaysian Member of Parliament, Mr Charles Santiago, called the Asean response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”.
“Asean talks about a caring and sharing society,” he said in a virtual meeting on Asean member states’ human rights accountability on Thursday. “But clearly when it comes to the Rohingya… we do not have the compassion to bring them on board and provide them with the support they need.”
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS