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.
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:
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 . . .