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Early this year, JRS Indonesia received communication of a mother vessel which had embarked on a dangerous journey to seek a more dignified life and protection. News after news reported heartbreaking stories of the rejection of the ship that sought to disembark in several Southeast Asian countries.

In June 2020, 99 refugees were stranded in the Indonesian sea of North Aceh. It was believed they were part of the mothership that had journeyed for months. Even though Indonesia has a presidential regulation that specifically dictates the proper response to the situation, in other words, to save lives, it took days for the decision to be made. The concern over the spread of COVID-19 was among the few.

Aceh fishermen, well-known for their quick response in saving lives at sea, took matters into their own hands. Abandoning their work, they set out to help the boats carried mostly women and children. The government finally allowed it to land after the fishermen assisted them. The locals collectively raised support and welcome the Rohingyas. It marked as the beginning of the call for solidarity and compassion.

JRS Indonesia decided to join the call. With two focal points on the ground from their first day of arrival, we were able to coordinate with relevant stakeholders to initiate necessary responses. We also focused on advocacy to adopt best practices from the past, and to offer collaboration with the government, NGOs, and local communities. We were able to fill the gap in emergency needs, such as electricity tokens for the make-shift shelter, heavy cleaning, and set up for the new shelter in collaboration with international organizations, NGOs, and local authorities. Once the building was ready, the refugees were moved to the new shelter in Lhokseumawe, Aceh. JRS co-organized two information sessions about refugees for local stakeholders, including local police, military, neighborhood authorities, and local communities around the shelter.

All refugees were tested negative for COVID-19 after taking the rapid test. The situation has been under controlled, but gradually worsen. Food rations, toilets, and medical assistance have become limited. Many NGOs found it is difficult to access funding because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the local government of Lhokseumawe has tried to get ahold of the situation by setting up a local task force. This is not the first time for Aceh as a province, but the first for Lhokseumawe as a city. However, the locals came to donate daily: fish, rice, meat, and they often stayed at the shelter to help. This is another example of solidarity and compassion.

Another boat arrived in September carrying 296 Rohingyas, with the majority are women and children. While the situation has slightly progressed in the shelter, the new arrival called for attention. JRS responded directly with food on the day they arrived. The government decided that they would be placed in the same shelter as the first group.

We witnessed many challenges. Their health conditions after having been at sea for months were bad. During the following three days, JRS, in collaboration with other organizations, accompanied, and had to witness three people who died from the horrific condition at sea. With limited resources, NGOs found it challenging to respond, especially when the number had multiplied by four. Toilets were insufficient, the building lacked private space, waste management was not yet installed, and most importantly, the commitment for food assistance would end by September.

Fortunately, with the support of JRS Asia Pacific and JRS International, JRS Indonesia has been able to secure food assistance for another three months from October 2020 to 31 December 2020. JRS currently provides a packed meal for everyone. Once the mechanism and public kitchen are ready, JRS plans to invite refugees to prepare, cook, and distribute their meals. The whole process will be in line with the necessary COVID-19 protective measures.

The mayor of Lhokseumawe stated his support to empower refugees’ livelihood. Discussions have been over the shift of assistance from food to cash-based, hopefully, by the end of this year. Moreover, it is also hoped that this will lead to livelihood activities where people become more self-reliant. JRS fully supports this approach and will take part in necessary coordination or advocacy.

Unfortunately, the current emergency continues, especially in the coming rainy season. The complicated commitment and coordination with the government, as well as limited resources of NGOs, are real concerns. Regional mechanisms, that are often portrayed as a solution, have not shown practical impacts nor concrete responses on the ground. With the current policies and closed-border narrative, the question remains: Have we learned anything from the people of Aceh about solidarity and compassion?

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