(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Where are the Rohingya boat survivors now?

    When Malaysia allowed hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants abandoned by their smugglers and left adrift on the Andaman Sea to come ashore last May, it marked the end of a regional diplomatic stalemate that had left thousands of lives in the balance and garnered international headlines.

    Nearly a year later, a crackdown has successfully reduced migrant smuggling and trafficking into Malaysia to a trickle. But for hundreds of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who came off the smugglers’ boats hoping for a new life, their troubles are far from over and now no one seems to care.

    “Malaysia got praised for opening up its borders and allowing them to disembark, but what happened is that the folks that were on the boat were pretty much immediately put into detention."

    “Malaysia got praised for opening up its borders and allowing them to disembark, but what happened is that the folks that were on the boat were pretty much immediately put into detention,” explained Amy Smith, executive director of Southeast Asia-based human rights NGO, Fortify Rights.

    The Malaysian and Indonesian governments finally agreed to allow the stranded migrants to come ashore but promised them only temporary refuge and assistance. They gave the international community a 12-month deadline to resettle or repatriate the mostly Rohingya victims of the crisis.

    The majority of Bangladeshi migrants rescued from the boats opted to be returned home, but more than 370 Rohingya refugees who came off the boats in Malaysia have been held ever since in the Belantik detention centre in Kedah in the northwest of the country. Typically, detainees identified by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as Rohingya are judged to have clear asylum claims and released in a matter of weeks.

    For months, the government prevented UNHCR, and humanitarian groups, from accessing the Belantik detention centre. By August, when UN staff were finally admitted, many refugees had fallen ill with tuberculosis, said Richard Towle, the UNHCR representative in Malaysia.

    “All of that group is still in detention,” Towle told IRIN. “Some have suffered enormously during their journeys to Malaysia and many of them were in poor shape before they left Rakhine State [in Myanmar]. Now superimpose nearly one year of detention — these detention facilities in Malaysia are a tough place.”

    TB infections have prolonged the already slow and complicated process of refugee status determinations, and then resettlement applications. Towle explained that resettlement countries won’t accept a refugee until six months after they complete treatment for the infectious disease.

    Where can they go?

    The United States has promised to resettle an unspecified number of the refugees, while Australia has declined to accept any.

    “Australia is not accepting any Rohingya refugees, full stop,” Towle said. “The caseload doesn’t fit within current policy criteria for resettlement, so we have to look further afield for resettlement options.”

    The government restricts access to detention centres, but humanitarian organisations and refugees who have spent time in detention described the conditions to IRIN as severely overcrowded and rife with disease.

    UNHCR is trying to convince Malaysian authorities to release the refugees and allow them to live in one of the country’s sizeable Rohingya communities, but so far to no avail.

    Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning that Rohingya refugees are treated as undocumented migrants with no right to work or access to public services.

    The Malaysian government is now working with UNHCR to establish a pilot programme that would allow 300 Rohingya with refugee status to legally work, but for the majority, life in Malaysia remains a struggle.

    They live in neighbourhoods like Ampang, where apartments are affordable and an established Rohingya community offers support to new arrivals. But undocumented Rohingya say they can only secure the most dangerous and low-paying jobs. Others spend their days hiding from their smugglers, many of whom live in the same community and demand repayment for debts.

    “Unfortunately, the hope of Malaysia falls quite flat,” Smith said. “For Rohingya, it is a very difficult situation because they are basically treated as illegal undocumented migrants and are subject to arrest, exploitation [and] extortion by the Malaysian authorities.”

    In Indonesia, most of the Rohingya refugees who had been rescued last May off the coast of Aceh Province in the north have since disappeared from the temporary camps where they were being hosted. They are thought to have put their lives in the hands of smugglers once again in an effort to reach Malaysia and its better prospects for working in the informal economy. It is not known how many successfully made the journey, but some have approached UNHCR’s Kuala Lumpur office and applied for asylum. Towle declined to give specific numbers, but confirmed that “a considerable percentage of the people who finished up in Indonesia have drifted across, under their own devices, towards Malaysia.”


    A map showing the location of abandoned smugglers' boats when their passengers were finally found or rescued

    Long-term solution

    The Muslim Rohingya have been described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Claiming they are don’t belong to a genuine ethnic group but are Bengali migrants, the government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar has restricted their freedom of movement and denied them citizenship, access to education and the right to vote.

    The situation in Rakhine State, where most of Myanmar’s Rohingya population are confined to camps, remains tense, but fewer are choosing to leave. Chris Lewa, coordinator of Thailand-based human rights group, the Arakan Project, believes many are waiting to see if Myanmar’s new government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, will improve their situation. Others may have been put off by news from Malaysia of frequent immigration raids to catch undocumented migrants.

    “The Rohingyas are sort of trapped in Rakhine nowadays,” Lewa said. “However, for the time being, there seems to be less urgency for them to flee due to hope with the new government and due to the deteriorating situation in Malaysia.” 

    Related stories:

    All at sea: what lies behind Southeast Asia's migrant crisis?

    Kept afloat by hope: the endless odyssey of the Rohingya

    Tackling the roots of the Rohingya crisis

    Rohingya refugees vanish from Indonesia

    While the first half of 2015 was marked by an estimated 33,600 Rohingya and Baghladeshi migrants taking smugglers’ boats across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, the highly-publicised crackdown on smuggling networks has reduced arrivals dramatically – UNHCR reported just 1,600 departures in the second half of the year. Others continue to travel overland, crossing the Thai-Malaysian border on foot.

    UNHCR estimates that 370 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees died during boat crossings during 2015. The remains of more than 220 others were unearthed in people trafficking camps along the Thai-Malaysia border.

    The Bali Process, a regional framework set up in 2002 to tackle people smuggling and trafficking, has done little to address the root causes of irregular migration. At a ministerial meeting in March, regional leaders pledged greater cooperation on search and rescue efforts and providing temporary protection and legal pathways for refugees and migrants.

    “The Bay of Bengal [crisis] was a wake-up call for the people of the region about the need for greater cooperation,” said Towle. “The Bali Process is a step towards that, but there is still a [long] way to go, otherwise we’ll see another crisis again with the same response as before.”



    Where are the Rohingya boat survivors now?
    No happy ending for Myanmar refugees
  • The world’s clogged asylum system

    The teenage boys curled up atop pieces of scrap cardboard as they prepared to spend another night sleeping on the sidewalk outside the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) office in the Indonesian capital.

    They had travelled thousands of kilometres, fleeing violence and persecution in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. After perilous journeys aboard smugglers’ boats, they ended up confused and vulnerable to assault on the streets of Jakarta where they make their homes. The government doesn’t provide shelter, aside from detention centres in some cases.

    “This situation is really bad,” said 17-year-old Mohammad Amin Ahmadi from Afghanistan. “It is so dangerous. We are worried about our future. What will happen? How will we stay here?”

    Ahmadi’s dream is to make it to the United States and resume his education, which was halted at fifth grade. But a refugee crisis unfolding half a world away will likely mean a very long wait for resettlement for Ahmadi and other refugees.

    Resettlement has long been a solution for only a tiny proportion of the total refugee population (about one percent in 2014). But UNHCR says the refugee crisis created by Syria’s civil war has added further pressure on such programmes, meaning there are even fewer opportunities for refugees in Southeast Asia to be resettled.

    The agency’s Indonesia representative, Thomas Vargas, said the impact is already being felt in countries like Indonesia, which, like most countries in the region, is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers are given no special protection or prospect of integration.

    Only those legally recognised as refugees by UNHCR can hope for eventual resettlement to a third country. But the process of getting refugee status and then applying for resettlement can take two to three years. Vargas expects it to take significantly longer in the near future.

    “The demand for resettlement far exceeds the number of refugees that there are places for in the world,” Vargas said. “It is becoming harder and harder because of the state of the world we live in right now.”

    More refugees, fewer spots

    More than four million people have already fled Syria, according to World Vision, while another 6.6 million are displaced within the country. A number of nations in Europe and elsewhere have responded by offering to resettle Syrians, while refugees from other countries – Afghanistan in particular – are considered less of a priority.

    Yet, the number of people fleeing Afghanistan is dramatically increasing as security deteriorates. Emboldened by the withdrawal of most American troops, the Taliban is mounting a resurgence 14 years after being driven from power. The so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, has also been making inroads, while pro-government militias abuse and extort civilians.

    SEE: Abuses rise along with pro-government militias

    Afghanistan is now second only to Syria in the number of its people arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR. Afghans comprised 19 percent of the nearly 800,000 migrants and refugees who arrived by sea to Europe throughout 2015 up to November, which is equivalent to about 150,648 people.

    SEE: Afghans flee in droves, but Germany closes the door

    Still more Afghans, like Ahmadi, have chosen a more circuitous route through Southeast Asia in a bid to gain asylum. As a member of the ethnic and religious minority Hazara group, Ahmadi has even more to run from than others in Afghanistan as extremist groups gain more ground.

    The Hazara are Shiite Muslims in a Sunni majority country. They have historically been marginalised and even persecuted under various regimes, perhaps most mercilessly by the Taliban, which was overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2001. When the Taliban took the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, their fighters slaughtered at least 2,000 civilians, mostly Hazaras, according to Human Rights Watch.

    In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch documented ongoing attacks against the Hazara across the border in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which is a Taliban stronghold. Hundreds have been killed since 2008, and the “situation has prompted large numbers of Hazara to flee Pakistan for refuge in other countries,” the organisation said.

    Indonesia has long been used as a stopover for refugees from various countries, but many get stranded as they wait to be officially recognised and then accepted for resettlement by a third country. First they need to wait until their asylum claim is approved, then they can apply for resettlement. At that point, UNHCR forwards their application to countries with resettlement programmes. If one country rejects the application, the process begins again.

    SEE: Rohingya refugees in Indonesia await resettlement that never comes

    A lifetime on the run

    Ahmadi is the product of a history of attacks on members of his community. A lifetime of trying to escape violence has led him here, to this patch of concrete outside the UNHCR office in Jakarta.

    Ahmadi’s family is from Parwan, a province in central Afghanistan, but they fled to neighbouring Iran, the Shiite-majority country where he was born. His father moved the family to the Iranian capital, Tehran, after his decision to support a powerful Hazara political party led to attempts on his life. When his father became ill, the family fell into poverty and Ahmadi had to cut his education short in order to work.

    In 2008, the Iranian government announced it would deport more than a million unregistered Afghan refugees, many of them Hazara. Ahmadi’s brother was deported to Afghanistan and went to Parwan Province, where he was killed by unknown assailants.

    When Ahmadi was told he would be deported to Afghanistan with his uncle, he began to fear for his life. He was sure his brother’s killing was connected to the political dispute that forced his father to flee years earlier. Then, he and his uncle were sent back. A few months later, his uncle was killed and Ahmadi decided it was time to leave.

    A smuggler in Kabul told Ahmadi to work his way to Indonesia, where he said the wait times for resettlement were the shortest in the region. The teenager flew to India, and later caught a flight to Malaysia where he paid $1,500 to board a boat bound for Indonesia.

    End of the road

    Despite the dangers back in Afghanistan, Ahmadi now wonders if he made a mistake by leaving.

    As night fell, Ahmadi and the other teenage Hazara refugees packed in tight along the sidewalk. It’s the only place they said they feel safe sleeping after being attacked around the corner a few weeks ago.

    The boys said a large group of Indonesians confronted them during the night and began to shout. Most of the refugees had been in the country only a matter of months and none spoke enough Bahasa Indonesian to understand what was being said. But they all remembered one man shouting, “Disini Indonesia!” (“This is Indonesia!”), before punching one of the boys in the face, breaking his nose.

    Ahmadi and his friends eyed the Indonesian teenagers strumming an acoustic guitar and singing down the block with suspicion. Ahmadi sat on his scrap of cardboard in socks and a stretched out t-shirt as he rifled through his backpack to pull out a worn notebook. He removed a pristine white envelope from between its pages and gently opened the letter before smoothing it out on the ground.

    The letter listed his refugee information and the date of his next interview with UNHCR. The appointment is in five months time. Ahmadi doesn’t know if he can survive on the streets that long, let alone the years it will take for resettlement. He worries that by the time he gets resettled he will be in his 20s and hampered by his halting English and poor education.

    “We are still young. We can improve,” Ahmadi said before pausing a moment to think. “But not after five years.”


    The world’s clogged asylum system
  • Rohingya refugees vanish from Indonesia

    Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have vanished from camps in the northern reaches of the Indonesian island of Sumatra in recent months, raising concerns that they are once again turning to dangerous smuggling rings in a bid to reach Malaysia.
    “We get very worried about how safe they are,” said Thomas Vargas, the Indonesia representative for the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR.
    “Lets face it, smugglers have shown how ruthless they can be,” he told IRIN. “They have already shown how completely they can disregard human life. So, obviously, we are very concerned when we see that this type of thing can happen again.”
    Nearly 1,000 Rohingya refugees were rescued last May after human smugglers and traffickers abandoned boats at sea when Thailand and Malaysia launched a crackdown on their networks. Nearly eight months later, less than 400 Rohingya refugees remain in the temporary centres set up in Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, according to UNHCR.
    Most of the missing refugees are either in Malaysia or somewhere in coastal North Sumatra, waiting to board smugglers' boats, according to aid organisations. The situation highlights the difficulties aid organisations face when trying to discourage refugees from working with people-smuggling rings.
    The Rohingya initially received a warm welcome in Indonesia. Many were rescued by local fishermen, even as the Indonesian government refused to let them come ashore. (The authorities finally caved in to international pressure and allowed Rohingya asylum seekers and migrants from Bangladesh to land.) In Aceh, locals organised a concert to raise money and held a traditional welcoming ceremony for the refugees.
    SEE: In Indonesia’s Aceh, a warm welcome for refugees in a sea of misery
    The central government proved less receptive.
    “The Acehnese and the local governments in Aceh have been very welcoming,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, which advocates for Rohingya refugees in Indonesia.
    “They had hoped to integrate the refugees quickly into local communities, schools and economies,” she said. “The problem lies in the restrictions put in place by the national government, including the restriction on refugees working and the decision by immigration to keep the refugees in campsites only.”
    The Geutanyoe Foundation has helped the Rohingya set up a vegetable and a duck farm, in an attempt to provide some form of work. But it does little to lessen the economic magnetism of Malaysia, a country with a sizeable Rohingya community that has access to the labour market.
    “Even though they are grateful to Indonesia to save their lives, they have no desire to stay in Indonesia,” said Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, which advocates for the rights of Rohingya. “When I visited them in Aceh last May, a few days after their rescue or after recovering a bit, they were already asking how to get to Malaysia.”
    For most, the answer remains smuggling networks — despite the dangers.
    As many as 300 people died from starvation, dehydration and violence aboard the boats this year alone, according to UNHCR. Dozens of bodies were found in shallow graves outside smugglers’ camps in southern Thailand and Malaysia.
    Going through the official process involves years of waiting in camps to be resettled in a country where Rohingya have no community and no way to earn a living. Desperation pushes the refugees to seek out faster alternatives, even though they know the dangers of getting involved in smuggling and trafficking networks.
    “It has got to be a horrible choice to make,” said Vargas. “You are basically putting yourself on a boat not even knowing if you are ever going to see dry land again.”

    Rohingya refugees vanish from Indonesia
  • El Nino brings drought, hunger to Indonesia and South Pacific

    Rice is so central to life in this tiny mountain village in Indonesia that Ngadimin uses the harvests as his calendar.

    The weathered farmer breaks the year into harvests. There's the first harvest, then the second, with a growing season of alternative crops in between. It hasn’t rained since “the second rice,” said Ngadimin, who uses just one name like many Indonesians.

    That harvest was about two months ago, before Indonesia was hit with one of the worst droughts in five years, causing plants to wilt on the stem, and water levels to drop to precarious levels. His fields would normally be flooded this time of year, but the dried, cracked earth is evidence of drought, and Ngadimin has had to switch to crops that don’t need much water.

    "We plant rice during rainy season, (but) now we are planting chili,” he told IRIN.

    Local rice production was down 20 percent at the last harvest in Ketung Miri, according to the village chief, Sugianto, and it could be months before farmers can plant again.

    Farming communities throughout Indonesia are struggling with drought as rising sea temperatures associated with this year’s El Nino weather phenomenon affect rainfall across the globe. Governments in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Samoa report similar situations as the region struggles to cope with what is shaping up to be the worst El Nino event since 1997-1998, when the weather phenomenon caused sugarcane harvests to fail and closed schools in nations across the South Pacific.

    Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency reported that, by the end of August, there were drought conditions in 84 provinces affecting some 22 million people. It warned that November’s onset of the rainy season would likely be delayed into next year.

    The Indonesian government announced plans this month to resume rice imports by the end of the year as national rice stocks, battered by the drought and an increase in subsidised rice handouts for the poor, continued to drop. In a typical year, the planting season would already be under way, but in villages like Ketung Miri, fields remain fallow or stocked with secondary commodities like tobacco, chili and corn that require less water than rice.

    Prices rising, hunger looming

    Indonesia’s poor and middle class remain particularly vulnerable to price shocks. According to World Bank data, nearly 100 million people hover around the poverty line. Nationwide, the UN World Food Programme estimates that 37 percent of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished.

    “I am concerned about what might happen if the rains don’t come,” said Anthea Webb, the WFP representative in Indonesia.

    “This is such a big country with such an important rice culture that if there are impacts on production when prices are already very high, I would be very worried about the nutritional situation, which is quite precarious compared to other countries in the region.”

    Webb said she was most concerned about those living in the Indonesian archipelago’s underdeveloped eastern provinces like East and West Nusa Tenggara where many of the country’s most vulnerable people live.

    “They tend to have difficulty meeting their own needs when production is at the best of times,” she said.

    Regional drought

    The situation is worse in the island nations of the South Pacific, according to the regional office of the UN emergency aid coordination body OCHA. Fiji is experiencing serious water shortages, with the local government making emergency deliveries to 67,000 people, or 13 percent of the country’s population. Government officials estimate that sugarcane production has fallen 25 percent since the drought began.

    Tropical cyclone Pam battered the nation of Vanuatu, destroying water tanks and decimating crops across the country. Emergency response teams estimate that more than 90,000 people are in need of food and water deliveries, especially in the country’s hard-hit regions like North Tanna, where food shortages have already claimed at least one life.

    It’s been at least two months since rain fell in most affected South Pacific countries, raising concerns that the region may be in need of long-term humanitarian aid throughout the coming year, explained Sune Gudnitz, regional Pacific office head of OCHA.

    “That is a long time for a community to go without water or food crops,” Gudnitz said. “Communities, governments and humanitarian partners need to prepare now for a long road ahead.”

    In Ketung Miri, farmers like Ngadimin are attempting to ride out the drought with alternative crops. Ngadimin planted cabe rawit, the small, fiery chilis that are a staple ingredient in Indonesian cooking. But so did everyone else in this drought-hit region, causing prices to plummet as much as 70 percent.

    It’s enough to leave Sugianto worried for the future of his village.

    “We are in difficult times,” Sugianto said. “The costs are already so high and then when we do sell (our crops) it’s for no money.”


    El Nino brings drought to South Pacific

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