Jakarta: Australia has been criticised for refusing to resettle any of the Rohingya who reached Indonesia after fleeing persecution in Myanmar during the refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia earlier this year.
In its latest report, Deadly Journeys, Amnesty International says Rohingya refugees were killed or severely beaten by human traffickers if their families failed to pay ransoms and kept in hellish conditions at sea.
It says there are fears that hundreds, maybe thousands, more people may have perished at sea than the 370 deaths between January and June estimated by the UN.
“Although Australia gave $US749,000 (just over $1 million) to UNHCR’s appeal, it did not deploy any of its considerable naval resources to assist with search and rescue. Furthermore, Australia refused to resettle any of the Rohingya who arrived in Indonesia in May 2015 or reverse its policy that had ended the resettlement of all refugees who registered with UNHCR-Indonesia after July 1, 2014.”
Amnesty International said Indonesia should be recognised for housing hundreds of vulnerable people in Aceh despite initially pushing back overcrowded vessels and preventing people from landing.
Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to offer temporary shelter to 7000 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees on the proviso they would be resettled by the international community within a year.
However Amnesty International said there were “serious unanswered questions about a long-term solution”.
“The central government has not yet confirmed whether the Rohingya arrivals from May 2015 will be permitted to stay past the anticipated departure date of May 2016, even though the determination of their asylum claims and resettlement applications will likely take years,” the report says.
In an exclusive interview with Fairfax Media earlier this month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the refugee crisis in Europe would make it difficult for the 2000 people provided with temporary shelter in Indonesia to all be resettled elsewhere by May next year.
“So far we already repatriated around 600, so it means that we still have around 1400,” Ms Retno said.
It had been easier to repatriate the Bangladeshis, who were mostly economic migrants, but the situation for the Rohingya was “a bit different”.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, face persecution by Rakhine Buddhists in their home country of Myanmar, where they are effectively denied citizenship under national law.
“We requested that in one year the resettlement program can be done but with the new situation in Europe it makes it more difficult to settle this issue, the problem within a year,” Ms Retno said.
“So Malaysia, Indonesia, UNHCR and the IOM (International Organisation of Migration) will have to sit together to have a new plan beyond one year.”
In May 2015 about 8000 people were estimated to have been stranded in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea after they were abandoned by boat crews following Thailand’s announcement of a crackdown on human trafficking.
“The proximity and prevalence of trafficking networks in this part of Southeast Asia give rise that those who took the Rohingya on boats, did so to traffic them into exploitative labour on land or sea,” the report says.
Deadly Journeys warns that with the monsoon over and a new sailing season already underway, a fresh crisis could be looming in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
“Governments in the region must take coordinated action against human trafficking in a way that does not put people’s lives or human rights at risk,” the report says.
It also calls on the international community to provide technical assistance, funding and resettlement commitments.
The report recommends Australia reverses its policy of refusing to resettle refugees who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after July 1 last year.
Last month, after Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, Fairfax Media asked the government if the policy remained in place.
“Anyone who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia on or after 1 July 2014 will not be considered for resettlement in Australia,” a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.