Sydney, Australia. The world has a lot to learn from the noble actions of Acehnese fishermen, who rescued boats of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in May 2015 on the basis of humanity, said Geutanyoe Foundation International Director Lilianne Fan to a packed audience at the Refugee Alternatives conference at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia on 22 February 2017.
Speaking on a panel on strengthening regional refugee protection alongside UNHCR Representative Thomas Albrecht, Lilianne related how Acehnese fishermen rescued Rohingya refugees in 2015 and praised Malaysia and Indonesia for speaking out against the latest military violence in Rakhine State that started in October 2016.
“While our governments pushed the boats away, Aceh’s fishermen risked their own lives to save these desperate people who were close to starvation. Their humanitarian action convinced the governments to take the refugees ashore and host them temporarily.”
Lilianne also observed how the recent military crackdown in Rakhine and extreme violence against civilians has seen an important shift in the position of ASEAN governments, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, who are finally speaking up to raise their concern about violence against the Rohingya. Malaysia even went so far as to call the violence ethnic cleansing and has said that ASEAN’s policy of non-interference should not apply in the face of such atrocities.
The conference, organised by the Refugee Council of Australia and the University of New South Wales, brought together more than 200 people over two days to explore good practices for receiving, integrating and empowering refugees. http://www.refugeealternatives.org.au/
Among the speakers were refugees who had successfully integrated amd were making heroic contributions to their new societies, such as orthopedic surgeon Dr. Munjed Al Muderis, a former refugee from Baghdad who came to Australia by boat via Malaysia and Indonesia. http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/the-astonishing-journey-of-surgeon-munjed-al-muderis-20140918-10iqce.html
Lilianne was also invited to speak at closing plenary alongside refugee representatives, Najeeba Wazefadost and Arif Hazara, Afghan refugee youth who arrived to Australia by boat more than ten years ago, and Atem Atem a refugee youth from Sudan.
When asked to tell the audience how she first started working with refugees, Lilianne explained that her own involvement in refugee issues started when she was a 19 year old university student in New York, where she met and became close friends with an Acehnese human rights lawyer and refugee, Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, founder of the International Forum for Aceh. Jafar became like an elder brother to Lilianne and she helped him translate and disemminate human rights reports and together they established the Student Coalition for Aceh which built a solidarity network in NY with the non-violent student movement in Aceh.
A year after they started working together, however, Jafar returned to Aceh. A few weeks after his return he wrote to Lilianne telling her he would leave Lhokseumawe for Medan because he did not feel safe. Several days later, on 5 August 2000, Lilianne received a call from Jafar’s sister that Jafar had been kidnapped in Medan. After Jafar was missing for one month, his body was found dumped by the road 60km outside of Medan. He had been brutally tortured. “That was a turning point for me. I made a promise to Jafar that I would continue his work, to bring peace to Aceh, and to help Acehnese affected by conflict, inside the province as well as refugees,” she told the audience as many people were moved to tears.
In closing, Lilianne reminded the audience of the importance of strengthening our global commitment and efforts to end wars and build peace. “We should stop talking about refugees as a “crisis”. Refugees are not the problem. The problem is conflict and our inability as a global community to stop them and build sustainable peace. Aceh is one of the few peace processes that has held for years. But what are we doing to end the conflict in South Sudan, or Syria, or Yemen? That is the real crisis.”
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