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Sign refugee treaty or legislate aid response: Indonesia faith leaders

Flood of refugees exposes lack of longterm strategy to deal with new arrivals

Sign refugee treaty or legislate aid response: Indonesia faith leaders

Recently arrived migrants rest at a shelter in North Aceh, Indonesia last week (Photo by Ryan Dagur)

The Rohingya migrant boat crisis that has swept up several Southeast Asian countries this week underscores the importance of a legal action plan for refugees, religious leaders in Indonesia said Thursday.

Leaders representing prominent Buddhist, Islamic and Protestant Christian organizations, as well as rights groups and other civil society groups, said in a joint statement that the mostly Rohingya migrants must be treated humanely.

“The issue of Rohingya refugees is an issue of humanity, which must be the responsibility of the whole nation,” they said in the statement.

It is estimated that at least 2,000 refugees — mostly Rohingya from Myanmar, but also Bangladeshi migrants — have come ashore in North Aceh over the last two weeks. Officials have estimated there may be a further 7,000 people still adrift.

The religious leaders said the Rohingya issue has highlighted the necessity of a legal framework governing how Indonesia treats refugees. The joint statement called on the government to immediately get to work on implementing such a plan, either through adopting the 1951 Refugee Convention — the United Nations treaty that outlines the rights of asylum seekers — or by issuing a presidential decree that would make the humane treatment of refugees in Indonesia “more systematic”.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention – in Southeast Asia, only Cambodia and the Philippines have signed on. But Indonesia also lacks a domestic legal framework or its own national system to determine refugee status, according to the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR.

Though many of the organizations involved in Thursday’s joint statement represented faith groups, they also stressed that the humane treatment of refugees is not strictly a religious issue.

“The state must be proactive in telling the people that the issue must be dealt with by all parties,” said Sugiyanto, who represents Walubi, or the Indonesian Buddhists' Association.

Rev Stephen Siahaan from the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) said the Rohingya refugees have fled terrible circumstances back home.

“So what we need to do firstly is to save the dying people. The aspect of humanity must go beyond borders,” he told ucanews.com.

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Maman Imanulhaq, an Islamic scholar, noted that the country’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, which also endorsed the joint statement, has called on Islamic boarding schools to welcome the children of Rohingya refugees should they need shelter.

“We must pay attention to their rights,” he said. “There’s no reason to ignore the children. Based on humanity, we have the responsibility to save them.”

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have all been accused of turning away boats, endangering the lives of the migrants. But Indonesia and Malaysia on Wednesday announced they would temporarily accept migrants currently at sea. And on Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he would order search and rescue operations for stranded boat people.

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