The Jakarta Post
The United Nations Refugee Agency and various rights groups demanded responsibility and concrete action from nations grouped under a regional antipeople-smuggling forum known as the Bali Process, following the latest wave of stranded Rohingya refugees disembarking in Indonesia.
As many as 297 Rohingya were rescued by local authorities off the coast of Aceh on Monday, after months of drifting at sea in dire conditions.
The rescue effort follows a similar incident in June when local fishermen saved around a hundred refugees stranded in the waters off northern Aceh.
Originally from Myanmar, the refugees reportedly departed from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in February but were left to fend for themselves for over 200 days at sea after failed attempts to disembark.
Malaysian and Thai authorities reportedly pushed them away as borders tightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), two-thirds are women and children, and 30 people had died en route.
“Their hazardous ordeal has been prolonged by the collective unwillingness of states to act for more than six months,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement issued Monday.
As the only existing regional mechanism able to convene states to tackle the issue of irregular migration, Ratwatte criticized the Bali Process for having failed to deliver “comprehensive, regional action to predictably save lives through rescue and disembarkation”.
The Bali Process forum was initiated in 2002 to facilitate discussions and information-sharing about refugees, human trafficking and other related transnational issues.
It comprises 49 member states, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, as well as three international agencies, bringing together countries of origin, transit and destinations and other relevant institutions.
An emergency response mechanism was created after members accepted they had failed to adequately respond to the 2015 crisis in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, when around 370 people died at sea.
The consultation mechanism was triggered for the first time in 2017 to address the humanitarian crisis at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
“[After the 2015 crisis], Bali Process states acknowledged the need for a reliable and collective response to this genuinely regional challenge. Having created a mechanism to convene governments from across the region for precisely this purpose, the promise of that commitment remains unfulfilled,” Ratwatte said.
He argued that in order to have a comprehensive and fair response, there must be responsibility-sharing and concrete efforts across Southeast Asia so that those who permit disembarkation and bring those in distress ashore do not carry a disproportionate burden.
ASEAN foreign ministers are to virtually convene this week for the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, where the Rohingya crisis has become a contentious agenda item in recent years, despite protests from Myanmar. The bloc is expected to issue a joint communiqué, a document containing common stances on shared concerns.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said regional search and rescue operations were urgently needed in order to save those who still might be struggling at sea.
“We urge the Indonesian government to immediately initiate a regional dialogue. The slow action of regional leaders can turn the ocean into a mass burial ground for Rohingya refugees,” he said in a statement on Monday.
As cochairs of the Bali Process, Indonesia and Australia have so far remained noncommittal to the possibility of convening member countries for emergency talks to prevent repeats of such incidents or loss of life.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry's acting director for international security and disarmament, Hari Prabowo, said Indonesia and Australia were currently in talks to make further use of the Bali Process, although there would be more emphasis on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both sides have agreed to promote “practical and flexible efforts” to support its members in understanding the impacts of the pandemic on efforts to overcome transnational crime.
He told The Jakarta Post it was important to understand that the forum was largely consultative with a mandate to harmonize policies – not an operational agency that can act as a first responder.
“The Bali Process can make use of existing platforms for information sharing, training and strengthening networks, so as to prevent irregular migrants from falling victim to people smuggling,” he said on Monday.
The Australian Embassy in Jakarta was not immediately available for comment, but the country officially maintains that the Bali Process is a forum for policy dialogue and information sharing, and should not be used to trigger an emergency operational response to a refugee crisis.