May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Review: Troubled transit

Asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia 

Max Walden  

In August 2016, six members of Danish parliament from across the political spectrum cancelled their fact-finding trip to Australia’s offshore detention centre after three of them had their visas denied by the Republic of Nauru. Two of these parliamentarians had previously been critical of Australia’s border policy, whilst another conservative politician was rejected for no apparent reason, but that he was born in Syria. MP Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen asserted that ‘the world can see that in a country where critical eyes and ears are not allowed, it’s obvious that something is being hidden’. 

Working against the odds – including an Australian government insistent on denying the public information – journalists, researchers and current and former employees of offshore detention contractors have managed to expose abuses within the punitive system that polices Australia’s borders. The strict suppression of information imposed under the 2015 Border Force Act is increasingly eroding.  

Recent investigations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch exposed ‘severe abuse, inhuman treatment, and neglect’ behind a ‘wall of secrecy’. Guardian Australia subsequently leaked some 2000 incident reports from security contractors on Nauru, further detailing systemic human rights abuses. The UN has said that these reports corroborated with previous investigations by its bodies.  

The gaze of independent observers has in fact long been preoccupied with Australia and Australian-run offshore detention centres. The situation facing asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia has been largely ignored.   

Some 8000 refugees and 5000 asylum seekers are languishing in Indonesia in increasingly lengthy, protracted transitions where they are denied basic rights to employment and education. Australia’s November 2014 policy of significantly reducing the numbers of refugees granted asylum through the UNHCR refugee resettlement program from Indonesia, supposedly as a deterrent, has only exacerbated the problem. 

Antje Missbach’s Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia is the first comprehensive study of transit migration in Indonesia to date: who, why and how people are arriving there, the conditions of their stay and what the future might hold. Central to the book are the personal narratives of a number of asylum seekers, presented with impressive detachment and objectivity. This includes Ali who left Somalia at 18 years of age after his father was murdered and his whole family threatened. Missbach tracks his harrowing journey from Africa to Australia via Indonesia: a life in limbo in West Java, wanting to return to Somalia despite the risks but being told not to by the UNHCR, employing the services of people smugglers out of desperation, the subsequent interception by the Australian Navy and detention on Christmas Island and in Darwin, and his eventual release into the Australian community on a precarious bridging visa. 

Missbach deems the situation of refugees and people seeking asylum in Indonesia as being afforded ‘semi-protection’. They are not citizens worthy of rights but merely people who receive services to ‘cushion the hardship’ of poverty, social exclusion and uncertainty. This is largely because Indonesia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol. 

Whilst its 1945 constitution proclaims that ‘everyone has the right for political asylum in other countries’, Indonesia has never translated this into law. It does not have any legal framework for the protection of refugees, including protection from persecution and non-refoulement (not returning persecuted peoples to their persecutor) and access to legal mechanisms in order to claim asylum. 

Indonesia claims that its tolerance of asylum seekers in transit is enough, and that it meets its obligations under UN conventions it has ratified such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It worries about the cost of establishing a domestic resettlement program and that the Australian government would exploit Indonesia’s status as another resettlement country in the region. Missbach thus concludes it is unlikely Indonesia will ratify the Refugee Convention anytime soon. 

Life for refugees living in Indonesia is made more difficult by the fact that most Indonesians consider them as tamu tak diundang – uninvited and unwanted guests. There are obvious language and cultural barriers, and romance between refugee men and local women is often a point of contention and even violence. No arbitration mechanisms exist.  

The long waits associated with transit through Indonesia enhance these problems. In Puncak, West Java, several thousand largely Hazara asylum seekers have established a thriving community within a community. This has attracted the ire of local people, who saw these not as ‘temporary shelters’ but ‘permanent’. 

Alleged instances of assault by asylum seekers have precipitated angry backlashes, with the hardline FPI or Islamic Defenders Front holding public demonstrations they claimed were to ‘reject the presence of foreigners’, urging the local government to evict them from the community in West Java. Whilst this is a marginal, radical group, its xenophobic views are, alarmingly, not. Recently, a West Javanese official urged the public to be wary of foreigners ‘looking for women’ and to report anyone suspicious to immigration.

Tensions within the community and the growing number of refugee asylum seekers arriving sees the government looking for alternative approaches. Under pressure from Australia, Indonesia has been developing a network of immigration detention centres to manage transit migrants since 2009.   

In August 2016, Indonesia’s law and human rights minister requested that Australia provide more ‘assistance’ for the building of more detention facilities. Yet as Missbach argues, ‘they cause more damage to the transit migrants rather than constitute an effective deterrent to the increased movement of people’. Troubled Transit paints a bleak picture of life in Indonesian immigration detention, from inadequate food to risk of physical and sexual assault, overcrowding and being robbed by police and prison guards. Missbach’s research into Indonesian immigration detention was first detailed in Inside Indonesia in 2013, and the situation has since become even more dire.   

Given the country’s endemic natural disasters and outbreaks of ethno-religious violence since 1998, the issue of internally displaced persons in Indonesia has attracted much more scholarly attention than that of asylum seekers and refugees.  

There exists only a small body of literature – mostly by Australia-based academics – with researchers like Savitri Taylor, Brynna Rafferty Brown and Amy Nethery looking at the socio-legal gaps in protection for refugees in Indonesia, while Sue Hoffman has focused on the experiences of Iraqi refugees there. Nevertheless, the lack of investigation into the complex, ever-changing situation of refugee asylum seekers in Indonesia is striking.  

Antje Missbach’s Troubled Transit is thus a vital contribution to this emerging field. Importantly, this book highlights the widespread and detrimental impact of Australia’s unilateral border policies on the Asia Pacific region – particularly Indonesia. 

More journalists and academics should recognise what Missbach has; that Australia’s border protection regime extends far beyond its own borders, beyond even Nauru and Manus Island, and causes hidden suffering for thousands upon thousands of people stranded in increasingly prolonged transits. 


Antje Missbach, Troubled Transit: Asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, 2015.

Max Walden ( works in the international development sector in Indonesia and is a research assistant with the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre at the University of Sydney. 


Other related II articles:
Asylum in Indonesia, Edition 124: Apr-Jun 2016
Staying stuck


Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016{jcomments on}

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