The refugee crisis: Testing our compassion

The refugee crisis: Testing our compassion

Not since the Vietnam civil war of the 1970s has a refugee crisis of the current magnitude hit the ASEAN region.

Since May 10, Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees have been stranded in the province of Aceh.

The group, consisting of men, women and children, are currently spread across the northern and eastern coasts of Aceh.

At least 6,000 or more people are currently adrift somewhere in the open seas under alarming humanitarian conditions, trying for months to reach land.

The three governments in the region - including Indonesia - have decided to stop them at sea in order to prevent them from entering their territories.

Thankfully, the Indonesian government has refrained from turning away those who have made it to the shore.

The UNHCR has stated that unless the problems at the country of origin are solved, which realistically will take considerable time, the current influx is only the beginning.

Legal experts have advised each government to reject the refugees should the situation deteriorate.

The best that international bodies like the UN can do is to make appeals, which are certainly non-binding as the three nations are non-signatories to the 1951 Refugee Covenant and Protocol (RCP).

Specific to Indonesia, arguments have been made that the country is experienced at welcoming refugees from neighbouring countries.

In 1979, Indonesia set aside some of its islands, Galang, Kuku and Buton as transition camps for 125,000 Indochinese refugees before their repatriation back to their home countries or resettlement in a third country.

Some even suggested that a similar arrangement be made for the current refugee crisis.

Setting up island-camps such as these is not an act of compassion. It is an act of expediency. Isolating the refugees from other communities in Indonesia pushed them out of sight and mind of the public, thus reducing the sense of urgency to resolve the root of the problem.

It took 10 years for the first-asylum countries to agree on the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) in June 1989, which set up rigid screening procedures to determine refugee status.

It took another seven years of implementation before the CPA ended. Yet even when the last island-camp was closed in 1996 there were still some refugees remaining on Galang Island in Riau Islands province.

An entire generation of people were literally born and raised on that island.

The island-camp experiences have taught us that it is not easy to become a temporary host country, mainly because we now understand how slow and costly the process of relocation to other countries is.

Isolated refugee camps - no matter how well-accommodated - are still prisons. The only reason to set up these ghettos is to justify the public fear-mongering against refugees (i.e. they are out to take away jobs; they cost taxpayer's money; they encroach on sovereignty).

Even the portrayals of refugees who 10 years ago were still considered victims have begun to be painted with loaded and distancing legalistic words such as migran ilegal (illegal migrants) and pendatang gelap (unlawful migrants), rather than pengungsi (refugees) or pencari suaka (asylum seekers).

These unfortunate souls are described as a threat by people in positions of power because it is politically beneficial to look tough on aliens.

When it comes to people who seek safety to save their own lives, there is still compassion within us but it does not exist in the halls of power, bureaucracy or courts of law.

Witness how the fishermen of Aceh searched for and rescued the recent refugees, how local villagers provided food, clothing and shelter for the refugees, how local volunteers appeared seemingly out of nowhere to take care of them until the authorities, the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migrants arrived.

Perhaps it is fate that that these refugees ended up on a land whose people have experienced the same hardships caused by armed conflict, including discrimination and alienation, which forced many of them to become refugees themselves.

Perhaps it is fate that the Acehnese share the same cultural and religious characteristics as the refugees, which has helped overcome initial prejudices and language divisions.

Perhaps it is also fate that because Aceh now has special autonomy status the fishermen have enough confidence to defy initial warnings from some officials not to rescue the boats as it would violate border laws.

Or perhaps it is simply because these Acehnese - all of them ordinary men and women - have far better compassion than those who are meant to lead us in these matters.

If another temporary transition refugee camp is to be set up in Indonesia, then another island prison is not the solution. The refugees are not criminals or animals.

They have every right to join the larger community. Inevitably, there will be occasional friction, or cases of abuse by both refugees and hosts.

However, we must have faith that the vast majority of Indonesian communities, be they in Aceh or elsewhere, will be able to embrace and accept these refugees either temporarily or permanently.

Where laws and regulations have failed in addressing humanitarian problems, then it is time for those in power to start believing in the capacity of their own people for compassion and acceptance of others.

The writer is a researcher who has studied Aceh for over two decades and currently resides in Jakarta.

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