Refugees in protracted transit in Indonesia

By Max Walden | 03 Jun 16
Alexis Gravel/flickr

It was a policy implemented to curb the movement of asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. In November 2014, then immigration minister Scott Morrison announced that people who had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia after June 2014 would be barred from applying for a settlement visa to Australia. The policy would also reduce the intake of refugees from Indonesia to 450 per year, down from 600.

“These changes should reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia and encourage them to seek resettlement in or from countries of first asylum”, Mr Morrison said in a statement announcing the new policy.

The policy has significant ramifications for the 8000 refugees and 5000 asylum seekers in Indonesia, and for Australia’s capacity to build consensus around regional processing of asylum claims in the Asia‑Pacific.

Indonesia has been a key transit hub for asylum seekers and refugees. Yet while the Indonesian Constitution enshrines the “right to obtain political asylum from another country”, Indonesia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Asylum seekers in Indonesia are denied basic rights to employment, education and healthcare.

In 2009, Indonesia enacted laws to formally establish a system of detention centres across the archipelago aimed at curbing “illegal” migration across its porous borders. Under pressure from Australia, it has since established 13 long term detention centres and 20 temporary detention facilities. Australian taxpayer funds help to pay for these facilities. But Indonesia is a developing country, struggling to feed its 250 million people, with overburdened social services and poor infrastructure.

In such circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that Human Rights Watch has reported that overcrowding and long periods of detention have violated detainees’ rights and led to outbreaks of violence. One facility in Medan was built to house 50 people but about ten times that number was detained there in April 2013. Monash University’s Dr Antje Missbach has documented conditions in Indonesian detention centres, uncovering horrific cases of police brutality and torture.

Notwithstanding these conditions, asylum seekers continue to see protracted transit in Indonesia, even in detention, as a price worth paying to make it to Australia. Since the announcement of Australia’s policy, the UNHCR reported that from November 2014 to July 2015 the number of asylum seekers and refugees registered with its Jakarta office increased by 30 percent to 13,188 people. Some 1000 of these are unaccompanied children, many of whom remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in Indonesia.

In 2015 I volunteered as an English teacher for the Jesuit Refugee Service in community housing in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Unlike Aceh in northern Sumatra or Cisarua in West Java, the regal Javanese city of “Jogja” is not typically associated with asylum seekers or refugees. With a steady flow arriving in Indonesia, however, asylum seekers have dispersed across the archipelago. Now some 50 refugees call Yogyakarta a temporary home.

All of the refugees I worked with were men aged 19 to 35 years who had fled Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran and Iraq. Being what Indonesia considers asing ilegal or “illegal aliens”, they had all spent at least one or two years in immigration detention.

But the men I was working with were the “lucky ones”: they had gone through the so-called proper channels by applying for refugee status through the UNHCR in Jakarta. Upon being granted refugee status they were moved from detention into community housing, where they are provided a modest monthly allowance by the International Organization for Migration.

Unable to work or undertake formal education they await resettlement in a third country, with no indication of when this might happen. The overwhelming majority dream of building a life in Australia. They don’t want to go the United States, New Zealand or Canada. Despite being confused by the callousness of Australia’s official immigration policy, in these men’s eyes Australia remains an idyllic, tolerant land of safety and opportunity.

For some, immigration detention came after a foiled attempt to travel to Australia by boat to seek asylum. An Afghani I knew felt he had been deliberately deceived: Indonesian officials had told him he would get resettled quicker if he entered a detention facility and applied to the UNHCR. In the Pontianak detention centre he was tortured. Now, after almost two years in immigration detention and more than a year in Yogyakarta, progress towards his resettlement is as uncertain as ever.

“Forced migration is a reality on which Australia cannot turn its back.”

Another refugee from Myanmar told me that he had been in Indonesia for five and a half years. During this time he had learnt Bahasa Indonesia, obeyed the country’s laws and had endured detention while awaiting refugee status. Still nothing. His time in Indonesia seemed to be defined by a story he told me about being robbed by drunken Indonesians he thought were his friends.

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Indonesia and Australia has documented other sobering accounts of refugees who ended up in Yogyakarta. In a country plagued by complex ethnic and religious tensions, refugees are seen by many as undeserving outsiders. Many refugees are Shia Muslim, having fled persecution in Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq to Sunni-majority Indonesia. There is thus an ugly, xenophobic undercurrent to misunderstandings between newcomers and the local community.

Sometimes that undercurrent bubbles to the surface. For example, mosques near the housing facility in which the men I knew lived prominently displayed “Shia bukan Islam” – Shia is not Islam. A survey by Amnesty International in May found that Indonesians were second only to Russians in holding the least welcoming attitudes towards refugees.

In all of this, the only thing that seems clear is that asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Indonesia. The perils of living there without rights, at risk of being detained or of religious persecution, without any promise of safe resettlement elsewhere, do not deter them. Nor do Australia’s expensive advertising campaigns, films or even the threat of mandatory detention on Nauru. Meanwhile, Indonesia has offered to dedicate an island to host a temporary camp for asylum seekers and refugees stranded in transit across the country.

It has been noted elsewhere that developing a regional response to asylum seekers that is acceptable to Australia and its transit country neighbours in the Asia‑Pacific is a “wicked problem“. Yet forced migration is a reality on which Australia cannot turn its back. Multilateral forums, such as the Bali Process, may help to provide a solution.

The Bali Process could be the catalyst for genuine multilateral cooperation. Co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia, its focus is on strengthening transnational collaboration to address people smuggling and human trafficking. The first core principle of the Bali Process is that “states should promote and support opportunities for orderly migration”. But Australia’s policy of denying resettlement to refugees in Indonesia blatantly undermines “orderly migration” by severing a channel by which asylum seekers can legally access protection.

Australia’s chairmanship of the Bali Process provides an opportunity to take leadership on effectively managing asylum seeker and refugee migration in the region. Thus far it has failed to work productively alongside its neighbours such as Indonesia to address the issue. To protect Australia’s own national interest, as well as the safety of asylum seekers and refugees, this must urgently change.