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Asylum in Indonesia: Can temporary refuge become permanent protection?

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The international refugee system is in disarray. As Europe struggles to craft a response to an unprecedented influx of migrants and asylum seekers, the United Nations refugee agency reports that displacement is at a record high of 60 million people. While most of the world’s displaced remain inside their own countries, almost 20 million people are refugees seeking protection in other states. Indonesia and the region are not immune from these global challenges.

And yet, despite local cultures of hospitality – or at least benevolent neglect – Indonesia is reluctant to come up with a strategy on how to handle the arrival and presence of asylum seekers in the long-term. Instead, Indonesia hopes for help from elsewhere But existing migration and security forums, such as the Bali Process and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have fallen silent despite the growing numbers of displaced people in Southeast Asia, such as the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, among others. Australia, a traditional resettlement state for refugees in the region, has taken a beggar-thy-neighbour approach – closing its borders to asylum seekers and refugees arriving by boat. Once a state of rather rapid transit, Indonesia today hosts growing numbers of asylum seekers and refugees for longer and longer periods.

This edition of Inside Indonesia explores how Indonesia responds to asylum seekers on its territory in three ways. First, we provide a number of illustrations of what everyday life looks like for an asylum seeker or refugee. Realisa Masardi explores the experiences of unaccompanied minors both inside and outside of detention, young people who are particularly vulnerable as they do not have parents or guardians to help them through. Despite the efforts of civil society, child refugees remain in a precarious situation without proper state support. Thomas Brown draws a more positive picture, showing how refugee communities are slowly starting to organise themselves. In an attempt to carve a ‘normal life’ out of a difficult situation, some Afghans have established schools and other educational programs. Robyn Sampson investigates another aspect of daily life, namely the barriers refugees and asylum seekers face in seeking to marry their Indonesian partners. Formal marriages are not allowed under Indonesian law, but informal arrangements – though common in Indonesia – are prone to many pitfalls, including for the children born to these couples.

Second, the edition provides historical context to today’s problems; after all, the spontaneous arrival of large groups of asylum seekers is not a new issue for Indonesia. Sindhunata Hargyono looks back on the legacy of the Galang Island refugee camp, host to Indochinese asylum seekers and refugees between the 1970s and 1990s. While Galang is a symbol of Indonesian humanitarianism, Hargyono also points to corruption and violence that was prevalent in those camps. Vannessa Hearman and Jose da Costa recount da Costa’s flight from Indonesia-occupied East Timor in 1995, as one of 18 asylum seekers sailing to Australia in a small fishing boat. Their arrival created massive momentum for the Timorese diaspora and its solidarity groups, who knew how to make the most of the embarrassment caused for the Indonesian and Australian governments, spurring the campaign for independence.

Tea plantations in the hills of West Java, a region host to many asylum seekers and refugees - Credit: Thomas Brown.

Third, we zoom out to examine the broader legal and political frameworks influencing how Indonesia deals with asylum seekers and refugees in need of immediate and effective protection. These articles consider the national, regional and international context shaping the experiences of individuals on the ground and future prospects in this area. Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti outlines two, sometimes contradictory, strands of Indonesian policy – humanitarianism and securitisation – through the lens of the Rohingya, for who she identifies a strong sense of solidarity from thousands of Indonesians. Moreover, she captures a critical voice by showing how Indonesians feel about Australia’s reluctance to show neighbourly support in difficult times. Sophie Duxson provides a legal overview of the status of asylum seekers and refugees under Indonesian and international law, finding that while Indonesia tolerates this vulnerable group a lack of legal protections and the absence of a number of basic rights leaves them without prospects for a normal life. Finally, Lars Stenger looks to the future, discussing the need for change in how asylum seekers and refugees are handled at the national and regional level. He calls for a dialogue of ‘clever and compassionate minds’ that listens to forced migrants themselves in reshaping responses to the issue in Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly.

The edition demonstrates the complexities of asylum in Indonesia – both for the people seeking durable solutions and for government and civil society faced with the task of providing practical solutions. One potential durable solution, so far underexplored by the Indonesian government, could be local integration. Rather than just showing its famous hospitality for a limited period of time, Indonesia could integrate those forced to leave their own countries and communities and support them to become full citizens who contribute to society. With Australia’s return to deterrence at all costs, the challenges posed by displaced people is also a chance for Indonesia to lead the region in this vexed international area. The nation’s diversity can, and should, extend to offering refugees not just temporary refuge, but permanent protection.

Dr Antje Missbach ( is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Monash University. 

Nikolas Feith Tan ( is a PhD fellow at Aarhus University and Danish Institute for Human Rights in the field of international refugee law. 

Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016

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