Asylum seekers from the Middle East and troubled parts of Asia can languish for years in difficult circumstances in Indonesia
Frieda Sinanu and Antje Missbach
Iraqi children playing in an Indonesian village Frieda Sinanu
Nine months ago, Ghaazi (not his real name), a young Afghani, tried to leave Indonesia for the third time within less than a year. Again, he was unlucky. His boat sank near Trenggalek (East Java) and his best friend drowned in front of his eyes. Most of the 250 passengers died, but Ghaazi survived the rough seas for three days and two nights, when he was found by Indonesian fishermen and returned to the Indonesian authorities. When we got to know Ghaazi, he was living in a shelter for unaccompanied refugee minors near Puncak in West Java. Claiming to be under-aged, he was provided with a place to stay and weekly pocket money of Rp 120,000 (A$12) by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). He had decided to apply for asylum, but he was still awaiting the outcome of his determination process.
While living in Indonesia, Ghaazi met a number of fellow Afghanis who had come to Indonesia much earlier than him, but were still awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications or, if they had been recognised as genuine refugees, for their resettlement to a third country. Ghaazi also knew fellow Afghanis whose applications for protection had been rejected twice or more, but who had lingered on in Indonesia, some of them had become recruiters for people smugglers. Like the people Ghaazi met, Mariyam, her husband and their five young children have been stuck in Indonesia for years on end. Having paid a people smuggler around A$15,000 to escape from Afghanistan to Australia, Indonesia was as far as they got.
After failing three times to reach Australia’s Christmas Island, Mariyam and her family ran out of money and decided to apply for protection from the UNHCR. It took five years to have their claims verified. Once they were accepted as genuine refugees, they applied for resettlement. So far, three possible host countries have rejected them. Mariyam is contemplating selling the few hectares her relatives still own in Afghanistan and make a desperate attempt to reach Australia. Having experienced maritime disasters before, she is dismissive of the dangers at sea. ‘It is better we drown together than wait here one more year.’ Twelve years of uncertainty is extraordinary, but Mariyam’s situation reflects the experiences of many transit migrants stuck in Indonesia.
Over the last decade, Indonesia has become a kind of long-term limbo for asylum seekers from conflict-ridden countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Myanmar. According to the UNHCR, the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia reached over 7100 at the end of August 2012. This is a very conservative figure since not all migrants are registered with the UNHCR. Australian Government statistics show that from January to July 2012 alone more than 6093 people have travelled by boat from Indonesia to Australia.
Several factors have contributed to Indonesia’s growing attractiveness as a place of transit. Not only is Indonesia a close neighbour to Australia, but the Indonesian archipelago is vast. Its 40,000km porous borders provide transit migrants with easy entry and exit points. Also, Indonesia has, until recently, pursued a live-and-let-live attitude to asylum seekers if registered with the UNHCR, which processes their claims for refugee status. However, as a non-signatory of the Refugee Convention, Indonesia does not offer special protection to asylum seekers but refrains from refoulement (forced return). Indonesia prefers to have recognised refugees resettled to third countries and rejected asylum seekers returned home. It has no legal provisions to allow asylum seekers and refugees to integrate permanently into its society.
Most transit migrants hope that their stop in Indonesia will be short-term. But most end up being disappointed. The UNHCR works slowly. Currently, asylum seekers have to wait around ten months for an initial interview. After that interview, it takes about one year for an asylum application to be processed and verified. After obtaining refugee status, a claimant has to wait again – possibly for years – before being resettled to a third country. In the meantime, they have to wait endlessly without means to earn income properly and with little access to the public health and education systems.
Life in transit
When asylum seekers first arrive, by boat to Batam or any other port town in Sumatra, they have to take a plane or bus to Jakarta. It is a lot easier to live there ‘underground’. Jakarta also offers them the opportunity to register with the UNHCR if they wish. Those who can afford to fly directly to Jakarta without transiting in Malaysia or Thailand first. A very common place of transit is the area around Jalan Jaksa because of the cheap dosshouses there. Some also stay for a few days in private apartments that offer them more security. Beyond resting for a few days after often long and exhausting trips, newcomers use their time to gather information about their fellow countrymen residing in Indonesia, find out how to apply with the UNHCR or organise their onward journeys with the help of smuggling agents. Sooner or later, most newly arrived asylum seekers move on to the Puncak area outside of Jakarta, where life is cheaper and the climate more refreshing.
In recent years surveillance by police and immigration authorities has become more ubiquitous. If arrested for breaking Indonesian immigration regulations, asylum seekers are usually put into detention. There are 13 immigration detention centres around the archipelago, where conditions are poor. According to detainees, food is often substandard, and clean water and medical care insufficient. Many detainees suffer from gastroenteritis, dermatitis and depression. Physical and mental abuse by prison guards and fellow inmates take place. Only those who have enough cash to pay bribes can make their lives slightly more comfortable. Hunger strikes occur regularly in some detention centres.
As many immigration detention centres are overcrowded, more and more transit migrants are released to live in monitored local communities. Priority is given to families, women, under-aged detainees and recognised refugees. The Puncak area, Medan and Yogyakarta host the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers outside detention centres. Those under the care of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) or the UNHCR receive a monthly allowance for housing, food and other daily expenditures and access to health care. Those receiving IOM allowances are relatively better off than those with UNHCR allowances – and of course much better off than those who have to rely on funds sent by family and friends.
Asylum seekers have no lawful residence and have to report their presence to the authorities on a regular basis. Although the general attitude of the community in Indonesia toward them is receptive, interactions between transit migrants and local communities at times are marred by difficulties and misunderstanding due to language and cultural barriers. Many transit migrants do not speak much English or Indonesian. Ghaazi, for example, admitted that he often felt isolated and had run into problems interacting with the locals. The majority of transit migrants are young, single men. Given a number of extra-marital affairs with Indonesian women that became of public knowledge, relations between the local communities and the transit migrants are sometimes strained.
To make matters worse, as foreigners transit migrants have to pay higher prices than locals for things like rent. Other Afghanis living in Puncak reported cases of extortion by locals and by people impersonating police or migration officers. The amount demanded varies. They range from ordinary bribes, when for example caught for driving a motorbike in the village without helmet, to rather substantial sums of protection money. For example, asylum seekers tell of people being visited by unknown people who threatened them with report to the local authorities unless they paid them Rp 5 million (A$ 500).
‘We don’t have much money. We are refugees, not rich tourists, but it is not easy to explain this to the locals’, said one Afghani asylum seeker. However, the fact that they can’t work in Indonesia prevents transit migrants from earning an income. Ghaazi explained that he urgently needed money to send to his mother, who was living with his younger siblings in Pakistan. After his older brother and father had disappeared, she borrowed from different people to pay a smuggler to take Ghaazi to Australia. Although she does the laundry for wealthier neighbours, she cannot make ends meet, yet her creditors keep pushing her to repay the debts.
An impossible situation
The increasingly watchful eyes of the country’s authorities are making life harder. In recent years Indonesia has tightened its immigration regulations. The new regulation issued in 2010, for example, requires migrants to sign a ‘declaration of compliance’. The letter contains five points. First, the migrants should stay at areas designated by the immigration directorate general only. Second, they are prohibited to enter an airport or a seaport area except in the company of immigration officers. Third, they are required to fully comply with Indonesian laws, including not working or engaging in income-generating activities, driving without a licence and upholding order in their neighbourhood. Lastly, they are required to report to the immigration department to update their registration every two weeks. Failure to do so risks detention.
The recently announced pledge by the Australian Government to provide A$10 million as a down payment on building the capacity of transit countries – including Indonesia – to deal with asylum seekers (out of an estimate of $150 million) means that the authorities’ grip on transit migrants will even become tighter. To make things worse, the latest developments recommended by the Houston report has seen the Australian Government returning to a firmer stance in favour for off-shore processing of asylum seekers in order to deter them from coming to Australia by boat. A number of recent maritime disasters have been presented as the main rationale for these deterrence measures, but one wonders whether the death at sea are merely used as a ploy to justify other policies that are part of the package. At the same time, the Australian government has increased the annual intake under its humanitarian program from 13,500 to 20,000 refugees. This number will, however, most likely only include 400-500 extra places for refugees waiting in Indonesia.
In August 2012 alone, more than 1900 asylum seekers arrived in Australia from Indonesia by boat. It almost seems that it has never been easier for people smugglers in Indonesia to recruit passengers. Facing undetermined time in limbo in Indonesia, people take enormous risks to get to Australia. Too many – like the 200-odd people on the boat Ghaazi escaped from – pay for these journeys with their lives.
Frieda Sinanu (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a consultant for development programs in Indonesia. Antje Missbach (email@example.com) is a McKenzie postdoctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne. Frieda and Antje are currently researching the situation of transit migrants in Indonesia.