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The Rohingya Crisis: Indonesia’s Immigration Issue
Sreeparna Banerjee,ORF
2023-01-19
Region : South East Asia, Indonesia,
Issue : Security, Politics,
As the New Year brings new hope, sea trawlers with distressed Rohingyas are setting off on perilous journeys in the hopes of finding a safe haven. Recently two boats comprising more than 200 Rohingya men, women, and children reached the shorelines of Aceh Island in Indonesia in December 2021. Such immigration has been increasingly witnessed in the Andaman Sea for the past two months.
The displaced people who arrived on the Indonesian coast are currently being hosted in a former Immigration Office in Lhokseumawe. The humanitarian partners led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with International Organization for Migration (IOM) and others, are catering to the essential needs of the hapless people by providing them with food, clean water, housing, and primary health facilities. They are also being registered by the UNHCR. However, the main concern that remains is that many such boats still floating out in the sea, without a trace.
As per reports, the rate of people, especially Rohingyas, traversing by sea from Myanmar and Bangladesh has amplified more than six times since 2021. This has been owing to several factors, for instance, lessening COVID restrictions, political instability in Myanmar, the lack of opportunity in terms of movement, livelihood, and education within the camp areas in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, and largely due to an uncertain future. Trafficking syndicates within and around the camp areas are capitalising on this opportunity and trafficking the refugees under the pretext of giving better employment opportunities.
Thus, in an attempt to find better opportunities, many are undertaking severe risks. Unfortunately, in 2022 alone, 119 people have been reported dead or missing for embarking on this deadly course. These numbers seem paltry due to a lack of concrete data.
It needs to be underscored that the movement of displaced Rohingyas to Indonesia typically is a secondary movement from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, or Myanmar. Mostly Indonesia is not the planned ultimate destination for these refugees since many of them aspire to go to either Malaysia or Thailand. The pushback approach toward refugees directed by these nations in the region has forced the syndicates to adjust their operations and alter the course of movement via Indonesia.
Responses by Indonesia
Indonesia is currently hosting 13,098 refugees and asylum seekers coming from 50 countries, the majority of which came from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Myanmar. As per June 2022, 908 are Rohingyas. Though a non-state party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the 1951 Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (the 1967 Protocol), it enacted a comprehensive national refugee law that was signed in December 2016. This law offers provisions that empower the government to rescue displaced people who are travelling via sea to disembark within their territory. Secondly, interim protection is provided to the displaced population within the nation till substantial solutions can be worked out to safely repatriate them to their nation or a third country. In this entire process, UNHCR has been roped in officially to help with the logistics, humanitarian, and technical support to ensure the entire procedure is executed in a smooth manner.
While the host country extends proper health care, education for children, some amount of freedom of movement, and shelter, however, the refugees are not able to exercise their right to work. In this respect, humanitarian organisations are working with the government to create opportunities for community empowerment and self-reliance programmes like skill development training, and entrepreneurship schemes that benefit both Indonesians and the displaced population.
While the Indonesian government shares a considerable responsibility, the regional angle becomes essential. Growing incidences of sea journeys by vulnerable people necessitate increased regional and international cooperation and coordination aimed to protect and safeguard the lives of people migrating throughout the region via sea.
Strengthening the Bali Process
The Indo-Pacific region has slowly emerged as a growing theatre for non-traditional security concerns. In this regard, 20 years ago, the Bali Process, comprising of 49 member nations, was set it place with the aim to address smuggling and trafficking in person and related transnational crimes within the region. Incidentally, Indonesia is one of the co-chairs along with Australia. It has been noted that the migration environment has undergone a complete transformation over the past two decades and presents new and evolving challenges to the region and migrant community. The pandemic has helped transnational crime syndicates to identify new means and methods to carry out their activities without getting nabbed or detected.
Though the situation is challenging, there are some ways to respond to this in a constructive manner. There is a need to strengthen engagements with member nations by assisting them to address transnational crimes and build cooperation to address shared challenges. The Bali Process contains many apparatuses to address the said threats through ‘good offices’ outreach, monitoring mechanisms to locate and address displaced populations, regional support offices that can help equip member nations to build capacity to address the migrant population or such movement of people in an effective and comprehensive manner. In addition, victim-centered approaches will remain crucial. Thus, initiating periodic and systematic training among officials responsible for handling the displaced people will be critical. Moreover, proper funding of the Task Force on Planning and Preparedness (TFPP) will remain essential to make it more action-oriented, robust, and prompt.
Corruption has been identified as one of the key facilitators of this crime. Thus, an intermittent risk assessment programme should be carried out in departments that are vulnerable to bribery. Rotation of staff, transparent and fair recruitment procedure, and promotion can be some of the methods that can be applied along with sufficient remuneration to tackle this issue. Strict action and conviction against corrupt officials along with traffickers will be decisive to regulate the matter.
Thus, Indonesia as a co-chair along with Australia needs to establish robust leadership and a clear approach to the Bali Process using existing frameworks and policies as per the 2016 Bali Declaration. The strengthening of the system along with concrete actions will enable members to engage within the process in a constructive manner.
As more desperate and displaced individuals continue to embark on such high-risk journeys, close monitoring, prompt response, and redressal mechanisms within the region become essential to ensure enhanced protection for displaced or stateless people. Access to legislative measures for those seeking opportunity and safety through migration will remain vital. Thus, integrated solutions at the national and regional levels will be instrumental in safeguarding the lives and rights of this hapless community.
Observer Research Foundation
ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.
This article originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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