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Australia urged to help Rohingya refugees in limbo

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month revealed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was urging Australia and Indonesia, as co-chairs of an anti-people-smuggling forum known as the Bali Process, to activate high-level discussions between members to avoid a repeat of a 2015 disaster in which hundreds of asylum seekers died in the Andaman Sea.

Indonesian fishermen discovered dozens of hungry, weak Rohingya Muslims on the wooden boat adrift off North Aceh, an official said.

Indonesian fishermen discovered dozens of hungry, weak Rohingya Muslims on the wooden boat adrift off North Aceh, an official said. Credit:AP

But Amnesty Australia’s Refugee Coordinator, Graham Thom, said Indonesia and Australia — as co-chairs of the Bali Process — needed to step up and do more to manage the flow of Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

In practice, he said, that meant establishing search and rescue protocols for the countries in the region that would see people disembark boats at designated areas and, most importantly, a mechanism that would lead to people being resettled.

The alternative is to let people stay at sea to drown and that’s clearly unacceptable.

Graham Thom, Amnesty Australia

Dr Thom said the best solution, in the longer term, would be for the Rohingya who fled Myanmar and are sheltering in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, to return home. But at present that wasn’t an option and governments like Australia simply won’t settle Rohingya who have fled to Malaysia or Indonesia.

“Australia could offer an important safety valve and say to Indonesia and Malaysia if you let people land, we will get at least some people to safety,” he said, “but we have taken that off the table”.

“The alternative is to let people stay at sea to drown and that’s clearly unacceptable.”

Ethnic Rohingya people take a break after arriving by boat on Lancok Beach, North Aceh, Indonesia, on June 25.

Ethnic Rohingya people take a break after arriving by boat on Lancok Beach, North Aceh, Indonesia, on June 25.Credit:AP

Leaders of the ASEAN member states met virtually on Friday. The humanitarian crisis of stranded Rohingya refugees was expected to be a topic of conversation.

Last week’s arrivals were brought ashore and have been taken to the local immigration office, according to sources in Indonesia. Officials have not ruled out sending them back to sea once the boat is repaired, though that looks increasingly unlikely.

Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims – originally from Myanmar – have been stranded for months at sea in boats somewhere between Bangladesh and Malaysia.

Indonesian newspaper Kompas reported last Friday that the final destination of the boat was Australia, quoting a local government official, but Indonesians involved in processing the new arrivals said Malaysia appeared to be the preferred destination of the 94 asylum seekers.

Rohingya refugees rescued off the coast of Indonesia.

Rohingya refugees rescued off the coast of Indonesia.

Fauzi, the head of Lhokseumawe Immigration who uses just one name, said the first two passengers to be interviewed had said Malaysia was their destination.

“They said they wanted to go to Malaysia because their families are there,” he said, adding it was unclear how long the would-be refugees will remain in Aceh.

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Rima Syah Putra, the director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO, said that “traditionally, the Rohingyas go to Malaysia. They will try to go from Thailand into Malaysia, if it can’t then they’ll go from Aceh to Malaysia”.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Australia was concerned about the situation of the Rohingya people.

“We are continuing to support Bangladesh through the provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance to ensure existing vulnerabilities are not exacerbated.”

with Karuni Rompies

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