Friday, June 26, 2009

RI [Republic of Indonesia] delays repatriation as Dhaka confims report

--from mid-June articles in the Jakarta Post and the newsletter of Doctors Without Borders

The repatriation of 114 Rohingya refugees, confirmed by Indonesia as Bangladeshis, from Aceh has been delayed as Dhaka continues investigating their exact status, an official said Friday. The Foreign Ministry said the refugees, who were part of nearly 400 Rohingya who arrived by boat in Aceh province earlier this year, have agreed to be repatriated to their home country. Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said an investigation into the nationality of the remaining refugees was still ongoing, though the process may take a while before a definite result could be attained.
for the full article go to

Bangladesh: Rohingya Forced Out of Makeshift Camp With Nowhere to Go
Increasing violence and intimidation in a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, is forcing the Rohingya to flee once again. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports on the appalling living conditions and maltreatment refugees are enduring at the hands of local authorities there.

A different editorial on this story is available on the BBC News website at:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Photos and Multi-Media Presentation of the Rohingya that Everyone Should See

Exiled to Nowhere—the Lives of the Rohingya
--Greg Constantine Photos

This is a wonderful site and I urge everyone to visist it to see another dimension of the history of the Rohingya.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New York Times: Situation Seen as Deteriorating at Aceh Refugee Camp

My friend came through, bless him.

Published: June 5, 2009
JAKARTA — Conditions at a refugee camp holding almost 200 men in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh have deteriorated in recent months, leading to the escape of a known people smuggler and his nephew, according to a nongovernmental organization working there.

A combination of lax security, little funding and poor communication has led to food shortages, violence and an overall atmosphere of fear and distrust among the refugees, who are increasingly nervous about what their future might hold, said Sara Henderson, director of the Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, a small nongovernmental organization.

“It is more critical than ever to ensure timely and appropriate communication to the local authorities and the refugees. But this has not yet happened, and as a result there has been panic and tension in the camp,” Ms. Henderson said. “In addition the security at the camp has not been improved and could be said to have become worse.”

For the full article please go to the Times online at

Thursday, June 4, 2009


I fear I have offended a higher-up. Oh woe is me whatever shall I do.

We have given this agency time, money and ample opportunity to correctly and adequately address the issues in the Idi camp that they—as receivers of the official funding—should have had in hand from the outset. What do we get? Stalling, obfuscating, and protestations that nothing’s wrong.
I present the latest interchange--in chronological order, so you get the full flavor, but with names changed, because even though we’re reporting public information, I don’t trust anyone these days to not be vindictive. The world of humanitarian assistance is full of, well, humans. Nobody likes to have their flaws exposed.

From: Sara Henderson [] Sent: Tuesday, June 02, 2009 10:31 AM
Dear P.
B.R. at UNHCR suggested that I contact you about a severe problem that is happening at the refugee camp in Idi. Before IOM came to Idi on a permanent basis, a group of local NGO's was working there that had divided responsibilities for the refugees at the camp. Since the arrival of IOM there has been much confusion and miscommunication. This seems to be due to a lack of any coordination on the ground between the local NGO's and IOM. In spite of this it appeared that IOM had everything under control. Thus we decided that there was no need for us to continue to supply the camp with food, water, cooking oil, kerosene etc. I wrote to S. F. and others telling them of our exiting the camp. However, last week my staff told me that there were very limited food supplies and only 5 days of rice left. I have to say I was surprised.
My staff and FPRM tried (as they had many time in the past) to get in touch with your staff to discuss this urgent matter, as no one was sure if IOM was going to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the camp. Not only were we confused but the local government had also not been informed. Today N finally made contact with your staff and was told that IOM only provides hygiene kits, and also that it had built a fence. IOM has left the camp in a very precarious state, as there is only rice for today and no funding for tomorrow. Luckily, we still have funds left from one of our donors and will step in at this late point and supply the camp with what is needed.
I regret having to write you about this but we need to all communicate better, cooperate better and consult with one another. Unfortunately, at this time I am in New York but my staff in Aceh is handling this matter. They are concerned because we do not have unlimited funding nor do we have funds to go further than the end of this month. We really hope that we can work together on this critical situation.Thanking you in advance for your kind assistance,

And his response:

On Tue, Jun 2, 2009 at 12:02 PM, PH wrote:
Hi Sara,

Whatever reports you have from your staff are incorrect. IOM has not left the camp in any manner (much less in a precarious state) and there are no problems with food supplies. IOM has been providing food and cooking supplies as needed since we arrived and will continue to do so in the future. FPRM is regularly providing vegetables, fruit and spices. If FPRM ever needed to stop providing these then IOM will provide the shortfall.

IOM has no communication problems with FPRM, PMI or anybody else there to provide assistance. We are also fully aware of the problems that preceded our being given permission to work in Idi. To link our arrival with confusion and miscommunication is another incorrect statement.

Deplu and the Camat’s office understand IOM’s plan to remain in Idi. On the ground in Idi we have almost daily contact with the Camat and/or his staff.

In short, the situation is not as described by your staff.


So I sent P’s note to my staff and received this:

From: D
Subject: Re: Food in Idi

To: Sara Henderson
Date: Tuesday, June 2, 2009, 1:16 PM
I'm sorry, Sara, I think I have said it incorrectly. It wasn’t that IOM refused to buy the rice because they had already supplied hygiene kits and fences to the camp. They have actually contributed quite lot. However, they did not coordinate their contributions with any existing local organizations or village members that have been working in the camp long before IOM came in. This caused doubling items in the warehouse, and almost all of it now has to be discarded. So now, the rice is truly running out. We should ask IOM if they want to supply rice to the camp.
It is also true that this lack of coordination and not working with other groups has offended the local community, and also those who had been supplying food to the refugees in the past. The person that IOM assigned to the camp is very low level, and inappropriate as a representative of IOM in terms of talking to about issues or needs or getting any response.
We know that IOM is authorized by the Indonesian Government (under Deplu) to provide humanitarian assistance at the camp. But they really need to sit down and begin to initiate open communication and coordination--not only with the Camat, PMI and local authorities, but also with local organizations and groups that have been supplying the camp. IOM might not have communication or coordination problems with the Camat, but they do have problems with local organizations and community groups.

So this is IOM’s way of responding to an immediate need in an appropriate and culturally sensitive manner. That only tangentially results in escapes, tension, confusion, and continual lack of supplies.
I know I’ll sleep better tonight knowing I’ve been put in my place by a higher-up. I guess there’s nothing to worry about, then . . .

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Update from the Idi Refugee Camp

Well, things have gone from bad to worse in the refugee camp in Idi, I’m afraid. Despite the best efforts of my dear staff to make sure that the refugees were getting as many basic needs met as we could address, and despite pleas from colleagues here in the US and in Indonesia, it seems that once again, a very large and well-respected humanitarian aid agency has proven itself to be anything but. I’m referring to IOM, the International Order of Migrations, and I’ve been biting my hand to keep from screaming about them in the past, but their inability to get out of their own way has reached crisis proportions and I’m done just sitting back and letting my small but dedicated staff and the residents of Aceh Timur shoulder all the burden of keeping these 200 Rohingya safe and fed and advised (clearly and in their own language) of their future here.

So I’m going to post a bit of correspondence between my staff in Aceh who have been at the camps recently, between me and a colleague who has been a humanitarian aid/governance consultant in SE Asia for years, and a kind reporter from the New York Times, who bent over backwards to cover what it could of this story, which admittedly has fallen to “page 6” due to all the other horrors our world is experiencing right now. But despite all the other font page news, there are still 200 men on a beach at the tip of Sumatra that the largest, most well-funded agencies in the world cannot seem to figure out how to help.

That frightens me.

Dear P:
We hope that all is well with you. L. and I are in New York right now but have been apprised of a severe problem that is happening in Idi Rayeuk with the camp and the local community. We feel that if this is happening in Idi Rayeuk it could be happening in Sabang as well. Following is a field report from our staff who go to Idi every week. Our concerns are as follows:

1. REFUGEES DON’T KNOW THEIR FATE: There is lack of communication with the refugees regarding their ‘status determination process’ and we have tried to convey this to UNHCR, IOM and the US Embassy. While they seem to understand our concerns, it has not changed the situation on the ground. Presumptively, UNHCR and IOM are waiting for Deplu [the Indonesian foreign ministry] to take the lead on communication with the refugees. But this has not happened either.
2. REFUGEES ARE NEAR PANIC: As a result of this communication vacuum, the refugees have now heard about it through the newspapers and are in a state of panic and confusion. The local government has also not been informed officially and has also only read reports in the newspaper.
3. ILL-INFORMED REFUGEES MAY CAUSE LOCAL DAMAGE: The situation has lead to what could be a very bad security issue. Already some refugees have tried to escape again. The more panic that is generated the more likely it is that these men in desperation may attempt a massive escape or some kind of action that will lead to violence. This will spill over into the local community where there is already tension concerning the land that the camp is on. There have been a few violent incidents already in the camp but few are reported to the police. As there is little to no security at the camp how can anyone be assured that the local community is not in danger, particularly when there is so much fear and tension among the refugees?
4. INDONESIA MAY LOSE ALL THE GROND IT HAS GAINED: It seems to be such a shame that for lack of a few words all the good will that Indonesia has generated worldwide with their humane treatment of these refugees could ultimately be perceived as a missed opportunity for Indonesian leadership. Instead it will likely all end in a messy tragedy. As you are well aware, there a group of 55 Sri Lankan boat people who arrived several weeks ago and are now in detention in Meulaboh, Aceh Barat. There has also been an increase of Afghan refugees coming into Indonesia. It is critical that the handling of all refugees by all who are in contact with them (ie, UNHCR, IOM, the government, INGO's) follow international standards and principles not just at a policy level but also at an operational level. Any help you can give us to bring this matter to the attention of the national and international public and government will be so appreciated. Please let us know if there is any possibly of you making inquiries at the Foreign Ministry on this brewing tragedy waiting to happen. We will be glad to provide you direct access to our staff on-site and to local leaders.

Best Regards, Sara

So . . . Where’d I get this information? Many sources, including staff eyewitness accounts. Read on:

Dear Sara:
I went to the camp this afternoon after visiting three villages in Aceh Timur. The refugees are now panicked when they read in the newspaper that 114 Bangladeshi would be sent home to Bangladesh soon. The refugees thought all of them would be sent home to their home countries, not just Bangladeshi who want to go home-- Myanmarese Rohingyans and some other Bangladeshis would be sent to Batam. The refugees misunderstood what the newspaper said, and some of them tried to escape from the camp again.

Someone from UNHCR, IOM, or Deplu must come to the camp and communicate clearly to the refugees about their status and the plan of sending some of them back. No one from UNHCR, IOM or Deplu has communicated to them what is going on. Their Bahasa is so limited, that they misunderstand what is in the paper ad what is being told to them. The camp is also running out of rice. We need to supply the camp with rice, since no one else has come to donate to the camp other than FPRM with fish and vegetables (with our funding support). The camp needs 120kg rice a day for the refugees, the cost for rice per day is IDR 850 thousand, and the total for a month would be IDR 26 million. Our funding would be enough to supply rice, vegetables, fish, and water to the camp only for 6 more weeks. We still don't know how long these refugees are going to stay at the camp. UNHCR, IOM and Deplu planned to move them to another place or send them back home, but they wouldn't announce how long these refugees will be staying in Idi Rayeuk.

That, my friends, is how large agencies treat small tragedies.

When IOM came charging in about 3 months ago to “save” the refugees from God knows what fate, pretty literally saying “Out of our way, we’ll handle this--” they did not communicate, cooperate or consult with anyone—the locals, the other tiny agencies already involved, anyone. So alienated and uninformed were the other players that everyone just stop doing what they were doing and left it all to IOM, who was receiving money ( that none of us had) from PRM etc. The local fishermen had been giving free fish since the beginning. Can you believe it? These poor people donated fish almost every day from their catch. They were never informed of anything and then IOM starting buying fish for the camp from outside sources, insulting the local community (and being pretty stupid about spending money they didn’t need to). Now we are informed by D and N that they are running out of rice and also need veggies and fish. We try and try to contact IOM to find out what is going on but to no avail so we are back supplying the camp with food, again. Meanwhile IOM wastes no time taking credit for “managing” the camp and “caring” for the refugees, and doesn’t even have the decency to communicate with us, or the refugees themselves!

All I can say is, thank goodness we were frugal and didn’t spend all our money at the outset, so we can contribute to the food needs of the refugees again.

Another example of David bailing out Goliath . . .