Refugees Lost In Transit In Indonesia


The "success" of the Abbott government’s new border policies in lowering the number of boat arrivals relies on forced returns and the outsourcing of refugee processing to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. While few asylum seeker boats have arrived in Australia, these "successful" scare tactics ignore the plight of asylum seekers and refugees stuck in neighbouring transit countries, such as Indonesia.

Since Australia toughened its stance on refugees it appears nothing much has changed in Indonesia. The immigration detention centres are as overcrowded as they used to be. 

More than 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees are currently registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia. According to UNHCR statistics, this number includes 7,241 asylum seekers and 3,326 refugees, the majority of whom are men. The number of people arriving in Indonesia seeking international protection has, however, decreased substantially over the last four months, as refugees and asylum seekers realise they are unlikely to find protection in Australia.

At the end of February 1,926 persons — of whom 326 were female and 364 were children (with 100 being unaccompanied minors) — were held in one of the 13 Indonesian immigration detention centres.

The time between registration and the first interview in the refugee status determination process is almost a year. During this time, asylum seekers do not receive any financial or material support and have to cover their own expenses. In late February 5,961 individuals were still waiting to be interviewed by an UNHCR officer to process their claims for international protection.

Over the course of 2013 less than 10 per cent of registered persons were resettled by the UNHCR; mainly to Australia, but also Sweden, the USA and New Zealand. In the first two months of 2014, only 96 refugees have departed for resettlement. The applications of 150 refugees were submitted to potential resettlement countries, while 943 refugees were still waiting to hear back on their decisions from the potential resettlement states.

What has changed, however, is the funding arrangement for the UNHCR in Indonesia.

In previous years, every recognised refugee was entitled to a monthly payment to cover accommodation and living costs. Now, the UNHCR can only support very few cases. This leaves many stranded asylum seekers penniless, especially when their families back in their country of origin or another destination country stop supporting them.

In Malaysia, asylum seekers can easily find employment in the construction industry or on plantations, even though it is against the law to employ asylum seekers without proper work permits. Indonesia does not offer such options as it can barely cope with the high rates of unemployment and underemployment of its own citizens.

Until 2013, Indonesian police and immigration officials were very active in intercepting and arresting thousands of asylum seekers who were trying to leave Indonesia by boat. This year they have widely ceased these activities.

Recent interception statistics show that most asylum seekers have in fact surrendered themselves to Indonesian authorities rather than being captured. The reason is most have run out of money as they cannot continue their journey to Australia because of Australia’s new border protection policies.

Once these asylum seekers surrender to Indonesian authorities, they will likely be detained in an immigration detention centre. According to one Indonesian migration representative, these asylum seekers “are so desperate that they sacrifice their freedom for food.”

Indonesia is preoccupied with this year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Little change is expected to positively impact the lives of asylum seekers. When an officer from the Indonesian Immigration Department was asked about mid- and long-term solutions for asylum seekers, he replied half-jokingly “wait and see.”

Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, so many issues regarding the care of asylum seekers under the UNHCR are handled on an ad hoc basis. However, some simple reforms could relatively quickly improve the lives of asylum seekers in Indonesia, such as formal work permits and access to education. Among the current asylum seekers there are many young people who wish to study, some of them may even have the financial means whereas others would need a scholarship from a philanthropic organisation or private benefactors.

Another way to prevent newly arrived asylum seekers falling prey to people smugglers is to provide clear and easily accessible information about the asylum seeking process in Indonesia. From my observations over the last four years, many have only insufficient knowledge about their rights and obligations as asylum seekers. For example, families should generally be exempted from detention and allowed to stay in community detention. But you can only demand such an exemption if you know that option exists.

Asylum seekers will not stop looking for safe places outside their countries of origin. Australia’s "stop-the-boats" policies may be pushing a few asylum seekers towards Europe but many more will get stuck somewhere on the way in ill-prepared transit countries, where they face additional hardship.

With our government's policies forcing people into these situations it is time to ask what matters more, protecting borders or people?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.