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What Rohingya refugees’ unsanctioned movement out of Indonesia reveals about the ‘safe migration’ discourse

SYLVIA KOH  |  23 OCTOBER 2021  |  ISSUE #17
Sylvia Koh.png

Image shows the maritime border between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. By WT-shared Burmesedays and OpenStreetMap, available in Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Indonesia is host to over 13,000 registered forced migrants. Intensified border policing at sea as well as the unlikelihood of formal resettlement have meant that most forced migrants are stuck in this ‘country of transit’ indefinitely, with little means of controlling their life trajectories. 


Yet reports of Rohingya refugees going ‘missing’ or ‘disappearing’ are common in Aceh. Out of the latest wave of 481 registered Rohingya who arrived in June and September 2020, only 10 remained by the end of June 2021. Likewise, of the approximately 1,000 Rohingya who had been rescued by Acehnese fishermen during the May 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, only 281 remained by April 2016. 


While irregular migration across the Strait between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula is historically enduring, the Rohingya are effectively the only group of registered forced migrants continually leaving Indonesia via irregular means. 


This recurring unsanctioned onward movement among Rohingya refugees warrants deeper reflection as it carries wider implications for the global refugee regime and how forced migration management is carried out in the region. In particular, I argue that focusing our discussion on migrants’ specific translocal connections enables us to see how these counter-strategies challenge the dominant discourse on safe migration and its gatekeeping of particular notions of refugeehood. 

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The ‘disappearance’ of Rohingya refugees is often attributed to trafficking and smuggling, a narrative that, in linking irregular migration to transnational crimes, emphasises migrant gullibility and shifts the air of criminality onto other perpetrators. We should not downplay the real risks of irregular travel, which include coercion and physical harm at the hands of traffickers as well as detection, arrest, and detention by authorities. However, attention should be paid to how the language of protection in the ‘safe migration’ discourse serves political ends for states and for international organisations. 


Much of this discourse is embedded in how different people on the move are conceptualised, especially within the global refugee regime. Here, I refer to an assemblage of international laws, institutions, and practices aimed at governing cross-border displacement. Refugee, asylum seeker, economic migrant, irregular migrant. These categories denote ways in which different bureaucratic regimes attempt to differentiate and control human movement by setting the terms of il/legitimate mobility. 


The United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the primary international legal instruments for refugee governance, define the ‘refugee’ as a person unable to return their country ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’ (emphasis added). Migration scholars are critical of this narrow definition. In particular, emphasis on persecution qualifies what kind of involuntary movement is legitimised, such that those avoiding desperate economic or climate-related crises are left out of the Convention’s protection mechanisms. Importantly, persecution also precludes degrees of agency and encourages a narrative of victimhood, with the effect that migrants often have to prove their suffering in order to be seen as a ‘genuine refugee’. Thus, of the migrants rescued in Aceh during the 2015 crisis, nearly 800 were found to be from Bangladesh and repatriated.


At issue is the dominance of these terms of refugeehood within the global refugee regime. Notions of refugee gullibility and victimhood are normalised in the ‘safe migration’ discourse, which emphasises the need to protect migrants from predatory smugglers and traffickers. Thus, ‘tough but humane’ counter-smuggling operations by Australia and Indonesia to prevent migrants from reaching the former are depoliticised and re-cast as rescue missions. 


Such an obfuscation of migrant agency does not only serve states’ security interests, it also preserves the idea of the genuine refugee as a victim in need, which international organisations such as UNHCR and its partners depend on to mobilise resources. The rhetoric of safe migration thus obscures migrants’ decisions to leave as direct responses to the refugee regime. Indeed, migrants’ reasons for leaving are often blamed on Indonesia’s failure to provide local integration instead of the regime’s infrastructural limitations, especially relating to resettlement. 


Many Rohingya are known to migrate to Malaysia to be reunited with family or to seek employment. Decades of Rohingya migration within the region often means that newly arrived migrants are already connected to translocal networks of co-ethnics and local facilitators. Indeed, many journeys from Bangladeshi camps and Indonesia are financed remotely by relations around the region. Malaysia, host to about 150,000 registered Rohingya refugees, has an established network of Rohingya community organisations. These organisations provide forms of mutual aid and support, at times by illicit means, where formal institutions such as UNHCR fail to meet basic needs. The frequency of irregular cross-strait journeys signals that these translocal activities are embedded within everyday local norms and practices and inform the relative ease with which Rohingya refugees can move geographically. 


That Rohingya refugees are predominantly the only mobile group points to the significance of these specific translocal connections in securing socio-economic mobilities as well as a sense of belonging within co-ethnic communities. These strategies are far from long-term solutions, carry their own set of risks, and are contingent upon individuals’ networks. Nevertheless, they demonstrate active responses by migrants, diasporic communities, and locals to circumvent the categorisations and formal processes of a global refugee regime that keep forced migrants in indefinite protracted displacement. 


As this essay has argued, how categories of people on the move are legally, socially, and politically defined shape institutional and ground-up practices that materially impact their lived realities. The Rohingya case shows how existing refugee laws do not adequately attend to a diversity of forced migration experiences. 


Attention to the Rohingya migrants’ translocal strategies offers a reparative entry point to seeing this diversity by situating them within the specific local and regional flows and practices in which they are embedded and help constitute. Indeed, we see a different experience of cross-border displacement emerging in interaction with the refugee regime, one that rejects its terms of il/legitimate movement: not only of outright persecution but of socioeconomic and spatial immobility, not only of involuntary flight but of actively coping with various forms of risk. 


Further reading and resources:


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Sylvia Koh

Sylvia Koh is a recent graduate of the MSc Asian Studies programme at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her thesis titled ‘Indonesia’s humanitarian (b)order and the multiple movements of Rohingya refugees’ won Best Dissertation (20/21) under the Tay Seow Huah Book Prize.

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