Lilianne Fan returned in early June from the second of two visits to the four camps in Aceh, Indonesia, caring for close to 2,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis rescued last month from boats left adrift by human traffickers. She is the co-founder of Geutanyoe Foundation an Aceh NGO, and a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She has worked intermittently in Myanmar since the 2008, initially on behalf of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Remarks have been abridged and edited for clarity. In an interview, she talked to Susan Cunningham for Mizzima Weekly in Bangkok about the migrants.
How many rescued people are now being held in Indonesia and how many are Rohingya?
In Aceh there are four camps at the moment, at Aceh Utara, Aceh Timur, Langsa and Aceh Tamiang, and one in northern Sumatra. The total number rescued in Aceh is 1,744 from three boats. The breakdown we have is 900-plus Rohingya and the rest are Bangladeshis. All but one of the Bangladeshis are men, a mix of economic migrants and victims of trafficking. Most are adults but there are many adolescents, some as young as 12.... The Bangladeshis and Rohingyas have been separated in Langsa and North Aceh camps.
What kind of services are they getting?
Some national NGOs have come from Jakarta. Student volunteer groups are bringing aid from all parts of the country – from Jakarta, Jogyakarta and different parts of Aceh as well. Even heads of villages from the south of Aceh and other parts of Aceh are coming with aid collected from their villages. Then there are local NGOs, such as MER-C Indonesia, RAPI, TAGANA, including the organisation that I co-founded, Geutanyoe Foundation in Aceh. The local government has been remarkable. They opened up all services. They are putting in volunteers on a daily basis. Then you have international organisations, particularly UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] and IOM [International Organisation for Migration].
What have you learned from interviews in the Aceh camps?
We have conducted long interviews. Asking them about where they are from and why they left. Why they took the journey and what was the journey was like. Especially for those that came on the second boat, it is difficult to get them to talk about the journey, especially the women. They get very emotional
The people from the second boat, which included a lot of women and children, are being held in a government facility on the coast at Langsa. It is kind of a terminal for fishing boats. The Bangladeshis have been moved to an immigration facility a couple of kilometres down the road. (This one is different from the much-photographed green boat which was seen off Koh Lipe before arriving in East Aceh. These people were the most traumatised.)
This boat was very large, with several levels, Burmese and Bangladeshis on different levels … The boat had been adrift for two-and-a-half to three months. So fighting broke out because of the scarcity of food and was still taking place right before the rescue. There were gangs. Men were fighting but women and children were watching. You can see a lot of psychological trauma. It’s hard to verify how many died. Most people say up to one hundred. The evidence of violence was very obvious because some people had serious wounds. Langsa General Hospital had to treat many. I saw a list of injuries just over the past ten or 15 days: fractures, head injuries, stab wounds. That was in addition to malnutrition and dehydration and respiratory problems. That boat had 682 people; that’s after 100 or so that had been killed. It’s still difficult to get them to talk.
Who are the traffickers?
The refugees and migrants said they were Thais, Malaysians. People on one boat said they [the traffickers] were Burmese and even Rohingya. It is really a transnational network that in some cases is preying on its own people.
Where were they trying to go? What were they promised?
It is clear that the Bangladeshis were looking for work. They - Bangladeshis and Rohingya - all said they were heading to Malaysia. Bangladeshis told us different reasons. Many Bangladeshis are already in Malaysia. Some used to work in the Middle East. Now it is harder for them to get work in the Middle East for various reasons. It is harder and harder for them to get work in the informal sector in Bangladesh too.
They are very different from the stories that the Rohingya tell us. None of them say that the first thing they are doing is looking for work. If they do get work, they would be happy. But the first thing they are saying is that they are leaving because they can’t take the conditions in Myanmar any more. Many have left IDP camps in Rakhine State. You can see many came from the camps or from northern Rakhine state, places like Maungdaw and Buthidaung. They are leaving because they do not see a future in Rakhine State. The men, the women, the children - all of them they say, “It is impossible for use to live in Rakhine State, It is impossible to live in Myanmar.”
What has been happening with the people recently arrived or rescued in Malaysia?
There are a bit less in Malaysia, so when the Bangladeshis are deported, you have something like 1,000 people. Just over 1,000 landed in Langkawi [Island, Malaysia]. These boats were literally brought in by the brokers, the smugglers on 11 May, a day after the first boat landed in Aceh. The Malaysians kept them there a few days and now they have been brought to Kedah state and currently are in Belantik Immigration Centre there.
What are the conditions like in the detention centre?
I do not know. Not great. At least there’s an increasing awareness among Malaysian authorities, the some of the ministries have become aware that they need to, say, let’s explore the alternatives to detention, particularly for children. There has recently been a lot of work going on to engage the Malaysian ministries.
At one point, they had a study last year that discovered that there were more than 1,000 migrant children actually in detention. Clearly, that shocked everyone, including the Malaysian government. They have started a commission to explore alternatives to detention, at least for children.
How do we measure political progress in resolving the Rohingya issue?
There has been some progress but I do not think it is political progress. What I have seen working in Myanmar for many years now, off and on since Nargis, is that very small incremental steps have been taken. It is important. We have seen statements from the authorities in the Rakhine State government about trying solutions to the displacement problems. They have been trying to extend and improve their services, particularly the current state government current chief minister. There has been more political will now then there has been in a long time in Rakhine state in particular.
Yes, there is a level of improvement but the incremental improvement is very, very far from what we need to establish enough stability to ensure that every community, Buddhists as well as Muslims, feel that they have a future in this society. And we’re still very far away from that … I think we’re looking at least another ten years of people trying in every way from whatever means to leave Rakhine State. More support is needed for the types of attempts that government is making to improve the situation.
More support needed from whom?
First and foremost, I would say the people of Myanmar. That is one of the biggest obstacles that even authorities in Rakhine State, as well as the international community, confront when trying to deliver services. There is resistance from certain parts of the population, in Rakhine State as well as in Myanmar as a whole, to any help being provided for the Rohingya. The first thing is trying to fight that stigma, that mind-set that discriminates against the Rohingya.
Isn’t it a good sign that all these countries – the US, EU, Australia – now offering aid to Rakhine State for health and infrastructure and so on have specified that it is intended to be inclusive, that it is to benefit Rakhines as well as Rohingya?
It is nice these donors want to help … if there are some guarantees that development is going to improve the situation of the Rohingya. That includes the question of their status. And I’m not convinced that there is a clear guarantee. There are a lot of attempts to say, yes, this aid will be inclusive but so far it is at the level of statements rather than at the level of an actual plan. The international community has to be very clear about the message it is sending to the Myanmar government.
What is the message is it sending now?
I think it is slightly confused. On the one hand, it is saying, “The conditions in Rakhine State need to be tackled, there is still a humanitarian crisis, and conditions are still severe and worrying. It is a protracted humanitarian crisis. We need to move people into a track where there is actually progress in either resettling or developing livelihood.”
But the statements of support for the government of Myanmar and the Rakhine State government to increase their development efforts, I think sends a little of a mixed message, perhaps even a dangerous message, unless It is qualified to ensure that’s It is not seen as a reward. That is the danger. If there is not enough emphasis on actually designing a process which is based on some level of sound analysis and, most importantly, a strong political commitment.
We say, “There’s a need to improve conditions in Rakhine State and, therefore, we are going to give you these big grants, several hundreds of millions of dollars.” That is not going to improve the situation unless you can assure there is a level of will to improve the situation for all communities. And I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to show that there is enough political will to support that.
How are we going to hold them to account? I do not think a few statements from the state or national government will be enough. There has to be real evidence. There has to be a roadmap with defined milestones. That you can actually say, for example, “OK, a year from now so many Rohingya students will be in school” or “This number of people in a community have improved access to healthcare or improved access to sanitation.” You can put in milestones that the government has to try to meet to access the development funding. I am not sure that is being done.
This Article first appeared in the July 2, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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