Motorboats of Rohingya refugees reportedly seen in the coastal waters of Seunuddon, North Aceh, on June 24.

By: Julio Achmadi

The hesitation of the Indonesian government in saving Rohingya refugees on a ship that almost sank in North Aceh waters is the result of disobedience of the law related to the handling of refugees. The surrounding community urged the government to save them on humanitarian grounds. In this situation, the government should not be xenophobic and discriminatory towards refugees who are struggling to live. The government must uphold the international principles and approach of humanity.

Motorboats of Rohingya refugees reportedly seen in the coastal waters of Seunuddon, North Aceh, on June 24. The ship was transporting 99 Rohingya refugees, which consisted of 17 adult males, 48 adult females, and 34 children. The United Nations (UN) declared Rohingya as the most persecuted minority group in the world. The persecution has happened for hundreds of years. Their movement increased rapidly since the onset of mass violations took place in Rakhine State, Myanmar, back in August 2017.

At the time of the refugee ship landed, the local government of Aceh had rejected the landing of the refugees due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation. However, the local community promptly asked for the refugees to be immediately evacuated on the basis of humanity. After a series of discussions, the people finally evacuated the refugees.

The fear of the government on the arrival of the refugees showed their unpreparedness in facing refugee flows during the pandemic. The government still prioritized security approach rather than health and humanity. Such fear was also proof of Indonesia's non-compliance with its own laws, namely Presidential Regulation No. 125 of 2016 about the Handling of Foreign Refugees which was published by President Jokowi back in December 2016. The rule explicitly states that refugees who are in a state of emergency should be immediately transferred to a helper ship if their ship will sink, brought to the mainland, and have their medical needs identified.

Indonesia has also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which obliges the member states to help anyone who is in trouble in the sea. Indonesia is also bound by customary international law. Therefore, the plan to turn back Rohingya refugees to the sea after their boat has been repaired should be avoided, because it would violate the principle of non-refoulment that is highly criticized by the international community.

As the only legal product that explicitly defines refugees, the Presidential Regulations still has many shortcomings. It only regulates the technical handling of refugees which includes the process of discovery, shelter, security, and supervision by immigration but has not stated the rights of refugees residing in the territory of Indonesia. The said regulation also yet to be further derived into a lower level of regulation in the form of technical guidelines for the handling of refugees during a plague, which was the root of the problem of Aceh's government in accepting them.

The government of Aceh can actually refer to the laws related to disaster and health quarantine, as well as coordinate with the Covid-19 task force in dealing with Rohingya refugees. The government of Aceh also has experience in receiving the flow of Rohingya refugees, as happened in 2015.

The government must accept the fact that conflict in various parts of the world continues to occur in Covid-19 pandemic situation, so that the flow of refugees is projected to continue. Indonesia needs to maximize its readiness in the face of these global challenges and be an example at the regional level by conducting a series of actions.

First, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights needs to publish a circular on the handling of refugees from abroad that enforces the principle of non-refoulment, as well as the fulfillment of basic rights of refugees in Indonesian territory with health and humanity approaches. Second, the Directorate General of Immigration needs to issue a circular on guidelines on the handling of refugees from abroad as a rapid response to the case of the Rohingya refugees. This circular can be a reference for technical execution related to the admissions process, data collection, identification of medical needs, and coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia.

Third, the Aceh government to immediately implement the rules in the Presidential Regulation in dealing with Rohingya refugees, especially related to the process of providing shelter. Coordination should be made with related ministries/institutions, National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), international organizations, and non-governmental organizations to ensure effectiveness of the handling.

Fourth, the derivation rules of Presidential Regulation need to be made by related ministry/institutions to prevent confusion in the handling of refugees. Fifth, the government should initiate the making of Laws on Refugees to adjust to the context of the needs of refugees, which are growing rapidly, as a medium to long term solution. Sixth, the government should work together with the community to avoid stigmatization, discrimination, and xenophobic behavior against refugees. Health and humanity approached should be prioritized to avoid further conflict.

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