JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The new Rohingya refugee crisis that is brewing off the northern coast of Indonesia might cast a long shadow over the upcoming Asean Summit, with critics describing Asean countries' handling of the stranded refugees as "totally shameful" in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Leaders of Asean member states are due to meet virtually in the landmark summit on Friday (June 26), where they are expected to discuss various regional issues including the fate of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea who face widespread rejection from countries on account of coronavirus concerns.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that Indonesian fishermen and local authorities in Northern Aceh had rescued 94 Rohingyas on Wednesday, insisting that "based on humanitarian considerations", they would be given emergency assistance.
They had gone without food for several days, officials said.
However, beyond giving the Rohingya food and temporary shelter, the authorities are still considering sending them back out to sea after they finish with boat repairs and refuelling.
"After repairing the ship, we will also provide fuel for the ship and then we are planning for the ship to be pushed back under the supervision of the Water and Air Police (POLAIRUD) and the Navy to get out of Indonesian waters," Lilawangsa military command post commander Colonel Inf Sumirating Baskoro said as quoted by Kompas.com.
Wednesday's rescue came as a coast guard official in Malaysia said that dozens of Rohingya were believed to have died during a four-month boat journey, AFP reports.
There had been more than 300 people on board a boat that was intercepted by the authorities earlier this month, said Datuk Zubil Mat Som, director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. The 269 survivors were taken to Langkawi Island.
"Some of them died at sea. They were thrown overboard," Mr Zubil told reporters, without specifying the exact number of dead.
The countries' reluctance to accept the refugees, especially during the time of Covid-19, has led observers and activists to sound the alarm on a possible repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis in the Andaman Sea.
In May 2015, the Rohingya refugee crisis grabbed international headlines when tens of thousands of Rohingya fled from persecution in Myanmar in overcrowded boats heading toward Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Nearly 25,000 were stranded at sea after states cracked down on the maritime smuggling networks that serviced these people, but they were largely saved after the three countries finally agreed to accommodate them.
After a military crackdown in Myanmar forced hundreds of thousands more of the Rohingya to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017, the refugee crisis had become a subject regularly raised in various Asean meetings.
Myanmar has consistently dismissed criticism of its treatment of its minorities, including the stateless Rohingya, a move that has attracted international scrutiny and has brought pressure on Asean as a collective.
Asean, through its humanitarian assistance agency, the AHA Centre, has promised to lead a regional response to help Myanmar repatriate the refugees, but repeated attempts in recent years have largely failed.
Ms Retno insisted that ensuring the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the Rohingya to Rakhine state has been Indonesia's main priority all this time, and that it would work with countries in the region on early detection to prevent so-called "boat people" from making the precarious journey.
"I underline that the issue of 'boat movement' cannot be separated from the root causes of refugees in the region. Accelerated repatriation is the key," Ms Retno said on Thursday.
Separately, the chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a Malaysian member of parliament, Mr Charles Santiago, called the Asean response to the refugee crisis "totally shameful".
"Asean talks about a caring and sharing society. You can see it in all of the documents and press statements and I am sure they will say the same thing, that we are a caring society, and nobody should be left behind in Asean," he said in a virtual town hall meeting on Asean member states human rights accountability on Thursday.
"But clearly when it comes to the Rohingyas, especially the refugees… we do not have the compassion to bring them on board and provide them with the support that they need."
Secretary general of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network Themba Lewis said the crisis was accentuated by the pandemic due to the travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region.
The pandemic also saw a rise in xenophobic attitudes, especially in Malaysia, he said, however "even more alarming is the lack of substantive response from the Malaysian government to that rhetoric and also neighbouring states in Asean as a whole".