Is Neglect of Rohingya Asylum Seekers Pushing Them to Join ISIS?

WITH the help of Acehnese fishermen, about 1,000 Rohingya asylum seekers arrived on the beaches of North Aceh in April 2015. Indonesia agreed to provide temporary shelter but stressed that the Rohingya would need to be resettled within a year. Last year, I travelled to Aceh to conduct a short research project examining the needs of the Rohingya in these shelters, particularly the needs of women. A fundamental problem with the management of asylum seekers and displaced people is the uniform approach taken – too often governments fail to account for the different needs of male, female and child asylum seekers.

Only later did I find out that the Rohingya weren’t just in Aceh. They could be found in almost all of Indonesia’s immigration detention centres, from Jakarta to East Nusa Tenggara. In Makassar, for example, there were about 400. They had arrived on nearby islands in 2011 and were being kept in a number of safe houses in the city. Only one or two arrived alone, most were families.

Even though Indonesia has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention and is therefore, in theory, not obliged to provide protection for asylum seekers, geographic realities mean that, like it or not, the problem is not going to go away. Conflict in the Middle East and Asia and the ongoing desirability of Australia as a destination country will ensure this is the case.

Rohingya asylum seekers face multiple and severe violations of their rights. The most basic violation is that they are denied citizenship status. Despite living in Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state for centuries, the Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens, and they have no civil or political rights.

The Rohingya are generally considered to be Bengali Muslims who began settling in the area now known as Rakhine state before British rule. For the Rohingya, Myanmar is their home – their ancestors have lived there for generations. It is true that some Rohingya arrived in the mid-twentieth century, and continue to have familial ties with people in Bangladesh. But that is no reason to erase them from Myanmar.

Organisations like Human Rights Watch have found clear evidence of ethnic cleansing conducted by Myanmar authorities and local ethnic groups (link is external). The Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes, losing their sense of safety and security, their connections to friends and families, and sources of income. In all conflicts, men are considered the primary actors but Rohingya women bear even greater costs. They are second-class citizens in their own groups and often face gender-based violence. They are victims of discrimination because of both their ethnicity and gender.

But the most egregious crime against the Rohingya is the collective indifference of the global community to their plight. It’s true that international institutions dealing with asylum seekers and refugees are stretched thin. But I got the impression the Rohingya barely registered on their radars.

There are a number of reasons that the Rohingya asylum seekers are not considered a priority by the international community. They are poor, many are illiterate, and there are no more than a few hundred thousand. Their numbers are dwarfed by the millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Refugee politics is like politics anywhere else. As long as the Rohingya have a limited capacity to advocate for their cause, they won’t get as much attention as asylum seekers with more powerful voices.

More than a year after the Rohingya landed in Aceh, few remain. The New York Times recently reported (link is external) that only 46 refugees were accepted in the United States and Canada after the 2015 refugee crisis. With hopes of resettlement so slim, many have been driven back into the arms of people smugglers. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 723 of the 999 Rohingya who landed in Aceh last year have made it to Malaysia, where many Rohingya asylum seekers have found work.

The Rohingya don’t have ambitious dreams. They simply want to live a calm life, send their children to school and find a source of income. “If our homes were safe, why would we risk our children’s lives at sea?” said Muhammad Alam, one of the Rohingya asylum seekers I spoke to in Makassar. They are sick of being victims of conflict and living without certainty in a country that rejects their existence.

This makes it all the more surprising that a number of them have revised their dreams about their destination country. Most of the Rohingya refugees I spoke to in Makassar still hoped to be accepted in Australia, Europe or Canada. But when I asked the same question to Rohingya in Aceh, the result was quite different. More than a few of them – even women – expressed a desire to travel to Syria. Their logic was simple but understandable. They are risking their lives for the hope of one day being accepted in a western country that might be able to offer them the better life they seek. With this seemingly out of reach, why not risk their lives to establish a country that could one day fulfil their needs – a promised land, created to uphold the law of God. This is what the see Islamic State as offering. They have already tried to fight for their lives with civilised means, but the neglect of the global community now seems to have driven them to take a more barbaric route.[]

Lies Marcoes Natsir has recently released a book on her research in Aceh, Berlayar Tanpa Berlabuh: Perempuan Pengungsi Rohingya di Aceh dan Makassar [Sailing Without Docking: Female Rohingya Asylum Seekers in Aceh and Makassar], published by Rumah KitaB.

“Character Education based on Pesantren Tradition” Book Discussion with Gus Mus and Buya Husein

 “Character Education based on Pesantren Tradition” Book Discussion with Gus Mus and Buya Husein

On Tuesday, April 26, 2016, I was invited to be a resource person in “Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition” book discussion, representing the other authors. The theme of the event was First Century Anniversary of Bahrul Ulum Madrasah and 191th Anniversary of Bahrul Ulum Pesantren, Tambak Beras, Jombang, East Java. The event was also attended by Mbah (respected) K.H. Mustafa Bisri and Mbah K.H. Husein Muhammad, all of whom are Indonesian influential figures in the field of social and religious affairs.

The book discussion was conducted by Bahrul Ulum pesantren, initiated by its kyais and students, colliding with the First Century Commemoration of Bahrul Ulum Madrasah and 191 Years of Bahr Ulum Pesantren, Tambak Beras, Jombang, to learn from the kyais’ journey within pesantren in the development of flexible and in-depth religious education in Indonesia. The religious education is based on values exemplified by the kyais and nyais, in building students’ great personality.

Hundreds of kyais and gus, and ten thousand of students from Bahrul Ulum and its surrounding pesantrens were enthusiastic attending the event. Their extraordinary enthusiasm was perceived by the committee who were really prepared and helpful, led by KH. Fadlullah Malik, M.MPd. and Dr. Muhyiddin, Deputy President of Wahab Hasbullah University. The committee had prepared four main venues of the event; Main hall in which Gus Mus, Buya Husein, and I as resource persons gathered with four hundreds participants, all of whom were kyais, nyais, and students of Wahab Hasbullah University. Meanwhile, other participants attended the event in two other large buildings and a courtyard, in which dozens of television and high-amplified sound system were placed. The participants were highly enthusiastic following the event through television screen.

Indeed, this commemoration was exceptional, and I was grateful and blessed was able to be together with Gus Mus and Buya Husein, who attracted thousands of participants in the event “Character Education based on Pesantren Tradition” book discussion, written and published by Rumah KitaB in the early 2014.

The event was officially opened by K.H. Irfan M. Sholeh, M.MPd. as the Chairman of Yayasan Pondok Pesantren Bahrul Ulum, and the opening speech was delivered by the head of committee, K.H. Fadlullah Malik, M.Hi. and Dr. Muhyiddin. During the event, the resource persons congratulated the anniversary of Bahrul Ulum.

The book discussion was moderated by Dr. Muhyiddin, as the vice president of Wahab Hasbullah University. In the introduction, the moderator stated that the Character Educationbased on Pesantren Tradition book has successfully mapped and explored pesantren’s noble traditions and reminds the education practitioners to liven up the traditions in this modern era, whose values have eroded the ‘traditional’ living values of many young people in Indonesia.

The moderator invited Ahmad Hilmi as one of the authors to speak first. The author describes the profile of Rumah KitaB organization briefly, then explained the background of the writing, the purpose of the writing, and the methodology. Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition book is a result of field research, conducted in various schools in Indonesia. The background to the writing is the unavailability of teaching materials that focus on character education in Indonesia. On the other hand, the character development of young people is losing its ground. The number of student’s fights which cause casualties is still high, as well as hates speech through social media that are often motivated by discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, race, and class. The students are losing of the spirit of learning; they prefer to hang out until late at night rather than study, becoming drug users, etc.

This situation shows that the school has no longer served as the central place for character building. It only serves as a means of regular formal learning; it starts at 07.00 a.m. in the morning, students do homeworks and tasks, study for the national exam, then return home later in the afternoon. The important thing is GRADUATED!

It therefore is alarming as the students are only taught to answer the questions during exam, but their characters are not fostered because specific book as a medium to learn values with student-friendly methodology used a primary handbook for teachers in the classroom has not yet been provided. On the other hand, our country has an abundant of educational values that come from pesantren’s noble traditions that have not been explored.

Thus, in the early 2014, Rumah KitaB had successfully written the book, as a result of field research in various pesantrens in Indonesia. The book contains fifteen main values, adopts many poems and stories of the former kyais in pesantren, and describes the values using rich interpretations of various verses in Al-Qur’an and Hadith, concluded from readings of a number of Yellow Books. Therefore, this book can be read for students from different background and educational institutions in Indonesia. Before in Jombang, Rumah KitaB has successfully held a series of training and book discussion in many cities, involving hundreds of teachers and students who represent their respective educational institutions.

After that, the next speaker is Gus Mus, a charismatic kyai figure in Indonesia. He explained that pesantrens in the past put forward the elements of education (tarbiyah) rather than teaching (ta’lim). When this condition is reversed 180 degrees, the pesantren buildings are more luxurious and towered, but the kyais are losing their roles and ”have nothing to do”, because the existing management and organizational structure do not ensure kyai’s involvement in pesantren.

If we want to restore the dignity of pesantren back to the glorious era, today’s kyais need to strive to achieve the level of sincerity like kyais in the past, who never needed anything from the others. Gus Mus greatly appreciated the views of Buya Kyai Husein in one of his works that stated ascetic (juhud) must be encouraged for kyais in the present. However, it is too heavy to be implemented in today’s current situation that, arguably, is too extreme. We can start from the concept of ”simplicity” because simplicity would bring us to “peaceful from within” as the opposite of ”peaceful from the outside”.

According to Gus Mus, characteristic that has been missing from the preachers (mubaligh), educators, and dai now is the spirit of ad-da’wah that reassuring and refreshing. Da’wah spirit spread by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Wali Songo, and Salaf scholars, is eroded by threatening and intimidating behaviors in da’wah. This kind of da’wah is not inviting, but dismissing people. Basically, there is a sharp distinction between the meaning of da’wah (invitation) and amar (command). However, nowadays the meaning of both terms is confused, so it creates an ambiguous concept.

Most kyais in the past did not know the “nationalism” term, but they acknowledged that Indonesia was their homeland, and it must be preserved and must not be destructed or colonized. Therefore, students who did not love their country will be bombarded by the advice of Mbah Wahab, Mbah Hasyim Ashari, and other kyais, who loved Indonesia with their body and soul.

According to Gus Mus, today’s serious concern is that people put forward their interests and search for the verses later. It is inversely proportional to the scientific tradition in pesantren which have responsibility until doomsday. Gus Mus Appreciating the book “Character Education Based Pesantren Tradition” that elevates the stories and inspiring stories in conveying the message, because the methods of the story was not threatening but pervasive.

On the other hand, Buya Husein emphasized on the importance of building awareness to contemplate various shortcomings and social problems that exist, as well as to contemplate the required exit strategy. Social problems are always closely linked to the failure of educational institutions in developing its students’ characters. Therefore, schools should return to its roots therefore the nobleness of the schools, as it has been successfully established in the past, can be restored in the present. Buya Hussein appreciated to the existence of Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition to remind us the importance of values-based education that has been established by the scholars in the past. After that, Buya Hussein recited a poetry and sang Arabic poetry that rich in values.

The event was closed by a poetry recital by Gus Mus about hubb al-wathan (nationalism) titled “I Still Remember that Melody”, created by Gus Mus himself, and can be found in Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition book page 38 – 40. In the end, an anthem titled ”Syubbanul Wathon” was sung by all participants. The song was created by Mbah Wahab Hasbullah, famous ulama from Jombang, a colleague of Mbah Hasyim Asy’ari, the founding father of NU.

Child Marriage Thrives in Urban Areas Too

BETWEEN 2014 and 2016, Rumah Kita Bersama (Rumah KitaB) conducted research on child marriage in Banten, West Java (Cirebon, Cisarua/Bogor, Sukabumi), East Java (Lamongan, Madura), West Nusa Tenggara and South Sulawesi.

This study noted the impact of socio-ecological changes in the change of gender relations in families, which has contributed to the practice of child marriage.

It also examined the influence of formal and informal institutions, as well as religious views perpetuated through cultural beliefs and practices, all of which have an impact on the practice of child marriage.

Migration, as a consequence of the changes in socio-ecological space, leaves many girls as the substitute for their parents at home.

At the same time, female sexuality is considered alarming; therefore, it should be expressed only within the institution of marriage.

Meanwhile, those who join the exodus from the countryside to other areas, especially to urban areas and bring along the entire family, threaten the continuity of their children’s education. Such moves can lead to a loss of access to education, for both boys and girls.

As new arrivals with no fixed abode, they bring along their family members to contribute unpaid labor, just so that the family can survive. They live in the outskirts of the cities, in no man’s lands and do various odd jobs in the informal sector.

This interrupted access to education has different impacts on boys and on girls. Boys will become underage workers. While girls also experience this, they are more often encouraged to get married as early as possible. This is not only to reduce the family’s economic burden; many parents feel they can no longer control their daughters’ social relations.

In Asia, Indonesia receives attention as one of the major contributors to this negative practice. In the SDG targets, Indonesia has committed to eliminate all harmful practices, including child marriage.

Yet according to the Central Statistical Agency (BPS), 25 percent of ever-married women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18.

And because of its large population, Indonesia is among the top 10 countries in the world in absolute terms in the number of child brides.

In early August 2016, BPS, supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), launched a report on “Analysis of Data on Child Marriage in Indonesia” based on data from the National Socioeconomic Survey (Susenas)and the 2010 Population Census (SP 2010).

The report stated that the prevalence of child marriage in Indonesia has declined more than twofold over the past three decades, but is still among the highest in the East Asia and Pacific region.

Meanwhile, the result of the Susenas conducted by BPS in 2012 showed that more than one sixth of girls in Indonesia marry before they reach adulthood.

The report concluded that the prevalence of child marriage in Indonesia is not merely remaining high but actually rising again.

To date, most studies on child marriage have focused on rural areas. This is understandable, as the occurrence and support factors such as poverty, limited access to schooling, and strong traditional values, as well as changes in access to economic resources, especially land, can be identified as factors promoting the practice of child marriage in rural areas.

Yet statistically, there is also a significant level of child marriage in urban areas such as Jakarta, Surabaya and Makassar (BPS, 2013). This generally happens among the urban poor and migrants to the cities.

As new arrivals living in isolated environments such as illegal slums, they are hidden from the affluence of the cities. They rarely have any contact with formal institutions or interact with the moderate religious activities conducted by moderate Islamic organizations such as NU and Muhammadiyah.

Instead, they fall prey for fundamentalist groups, which are more active in going into localities considered socially vulnerable (Testimony of the Faithful Servants, 2013). The conservative views that these groups bring in pose a great risk to the safety of girls, such as the appeal to marry off girls in monogamous or even polygamous unions, to give the parents a sense of security from sinful acts.

Apart from parents, an even greater influence on the practice of child marriage comes from informal institutions such as relatives, neighbors, and “institutions” that are not obvious but persist in the minds of the community or
certain groups: for example, fear of embarrassment from being ridiculed by neighbors, fear of sin, the obligation for girls to relieve the burden on their parents, fear of becoming an “old maid”, and so on.

In this perspective, formal and non-formal institutions are important elements that also condition or at least condone the occurrence of child marriage through these unseen pressures.

Rumah KitaB’s study also mapped various ways that are used by formal institutions in perpetuating child marriage, such as the mechanism of granting dispensations and isbat nikah (retroactive confirmation) for underage marriages that have occurred and require legality from the state, and the use of the “N5” form — a statement letter from the parents granting permission for the Religious Affairs Office (KUA) to conduct a marriage for their child.

Village religious figures also play a role in accommodating illegal marriages, and village officials falsify girls’ ages on official records under pressure from parents and the community, all leading to practices of low-level corruption to earn a bit of extra money. The picture above shows that child marriage occurs not just in rural areas but also in the cities.

More than that, it also indicates that the strategies to address child marriage need to look at the very different conditions between the rural and urban contexts.

The need for contraception services, information for adolescents on their bodies and sexuality, and changes in the content and methods of religious outreach, are all agendas that require attention.

At the same time, the effort to eliminate the corrupt practices in formal and non-formal institutions that support the practice of child marriage is a more complex aspect that also needs to be in the agenda of advocacy to combat the practice of child marriage in urban areas.


Lies Marcoes, The writer is executive director of Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation, an Islamic learning organization.