Since the Myanmar military took over the civilian government in February 2021, over two million people have been forced to flee their homes. Over 2.5 million people are estimated to be internally displaced in Myanmar and over 60,000 have fled the country. This mass displacement is on the heels of the Rohingya genocide in 2016 and 2017 when violence and crimes against humanity were committed against the Rohingya community, a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees now live in Bangladesh, specifically the Cox’s Bazar region, home to one the largest refugee camps in the world. But beginning in October 2023, an increasing number of Rohingya refugees have boarded raft like boats from Bangladesh and made the perilous journey to the shores of Indonesia due to deteriorating conditions in the camps.
Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and therefore the Indonesian government asserts they do not have a legal obligation to accept refugees. But, as thousands of people, 70% of which are women and children, arrive tired, hungry, and fearful after weeks at sea, several humanitarian organizations in Indonesia are calling for policy changes and a more robust, emergency response.
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia is one of the humanitarian groups calling on a structural process to protect refugees. In a joint statement to the Indonesian government, JRS Indonesia urged policymakers to abide by the international customary law of non-refoulement which states that no individual should be returned to a country where they seek protection. Because Indonesia did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, displaced people within the country face severe vulnerability and lack of legal protection.
“The conditions in Bireuen and North Aceh should disturb our conscience. We may have to remember again, our society (Aceh) is an open society…This condition needs immediate attention with the refugees rescued without delay,” reads the statement, signed by JRS and 12 other humanitarian organizations.
In November 2023, 249 Rohingya refugees were rejected when they attempted to dock on the coast of Aceh. Officials denied the Rohingya people anything to eat or drink, but Acehnese fishermen and local villagers worked together and brought food to the boat.
The boat was reported to have come from Bangladesh. With nearly one million people living in Cox’s Bazar, the space is cramped, privacy is almost non-existent, and women and girls are vulnerable to gender-based violence. Access to clean water, food, and health care is limited and monsoons brought on by climate change threaten deadly flash flooding.
Additionally, armed groups have taken advantage of vulnerable people living in Cox’s Bazar. The Bangladeshi government says at least 11 armed groups are now active in the refugee camp. As these circumstances grow more severe, it is little wonder why hundreds of refugees are making the difficult decision to flee once again.
The government in Myanmar has made some attempts at repatriating the Rohingya but these attempts seem futile as key demands from refugees, including recognizing citizenship for Rohingya people, are still denied.
The situation for Rohingya people continues to grow more dire as funding for the humanitarian crisis has been cut. In 2023, the UN decreased funding for food aid for Rohingya refugees now totaling just $0.27 a day per person.
JRS Indonesia is working to respond to the needs of Rohingya refugees arriving on its shores by providing access to emergency assistance and psychological first aid as well as education services and trainings for emergency preparedness. On a policy level, JRS Indonesia is active in advocacy efforts to make Indonesia a place that can welcome and respond to people on the move.
On Indonesia Independence Day 2023, JRS Indonesia hosted a festival for the refugee community. They celebrated with artwork, games, and performances. A refugee-led organization, Aim Sky, partnered with JRS Indonesia for the event. Aim Sky empowers refugees to harness their talents and pursue the arts, including photography, which they put into practice on Indonesian Independence Day as they documented the festivities.
The plight of the Rohingya and the dire humanitarian situation faced by those who have been displaced requires our attention and support. Learn more, share this story or consider making a financial gift today to help create more pathways to safety with JRS Asia Pacific.