The enactment of refugee-specific legislation can improve Indonesia's ability to deal with transiting migrants in its territory, writes Ilham, an immigration officer from Pekanbaru currently pursuing a master's degree in public administration at Australia's Flinders University. (Antara Photo/Rivan Awal Lingga)

Indonesia Must Revisit Its Handling of Refugees


JULY 23, 2019

Despite having dealt with transiting refugees for nearly 45 years, Indonesia is still unable to properly address the problem.

Between 1975 and 1995, the archipelago hosted more than 120,000 refugees fleeing political unrest in Indochina. The refugees hoped to stay in Indonesia, but the government had no intention of integrating them into the country. They came in large groups and were granted refugee status through an expedited process known as "prima facie." Indonesia also accommodated them on Galang Island in Riau Islands Province, entrusting the military with their care.

In the mid-1990s, Indonesia hosted a smaller number of refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other conflict-ridden Middle Eastern countries. For these migrants, Indonesia was only a staging post on the journey to their intended destination, such as Australia. Indonesian immigration personnel, who often did not know the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee, were entrusted with handling these groups.

When compared with the handling of refugees from Indochina, the way Indonesia dealt with the smaller number of Middle Eastern migrants could have been better, since the country had improved its capacity, such as a political shift away from an authoritarian and military government to democracy and the implementation of decentralization.


Indonesia experienced another flow of asylum seekers in 2009. It was not only the number of asylum seekers arriving in the country that increased in those days, but the nationalities of these people, registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), also become more diverse.

Indonesia currently hosts less than 15,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, but also from Somalia, Myanmar and a few other countries. However, Indonesia's commitment to dealing with in-transit refugees and asylum seekers is still feeble and its direction in the refugee policy area has been reactive.

While the right to seek asylum is legally recognized in Indonesia's 1945 Constitution, it is not fully enforced. Laws specifically mentioning the right to seek asylum were introduced more intensively since 1998, as seen in the enactment of Law No. 39 on Human Rights and Law No. 37 on Foreign Relations in 1999.

Although Middle Eastern migrants started arriving in 1996, it was only six years later that the government adopted its first refugee-specific authoritative instrument, Directive F-IL.01.10-1297, issued by the Directorate General of Immigration, to handle refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia.

Instead of enacting refugee-specific laws and looking for real solutions, the government prefers developing ad hoc and non-legally binding instructions, such as several regulations issued by the immigration directorate. Authoritative instruments are not legally binding, so enforcement can be extremely difficult.

While a 2016 presidential regulation on handling foreign refugees formalized the mechanism for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, it is still inadequate and ambiguous. The inadequacy of the regulation is bound to cause confusion regarding the responsibilities of the relevant government agencies assigned to deal with matters involving refugees and asylum seekers. Consequently, compliance is hardly achieved.

It is true that the refugee problem is not a political priority in Indonesia. This is reflected in the authoritative instruments governing refugees and asylum seekers prior to the enactment of the 2016 presidential regulation, in which the term "illegal immigrant" was often favored over "asylum seeker." Additionally, Indonesia faces more pressing problems, such as corruption and poverty.

It is also true that Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and thus lacks a legal framework on refugees. However, it does not mean the government can walk away from its responsibilities.

Indonesia must still find solutions to the ongoing problem. Not only because refugees and asylum seekers are not going to magically disappear from Indonesia, but also because the government will eventually have to deal with unintended consequences, such as socio-cultural and economic problems.

Indonesia allows refugees to temporarily remain on its soil because members of the international community have been supporting them. The Regional Cooperation Arrangement, signed by Australia, Indonesia and the International Organization for Migration in 2001, sees Australia providing the IOM with funding to meet the refugees' basic needs. However, Australia has started to reduce its annual contribution in March last year. And while international support has stopped, asylum seekers still arrive in Indonesia.

The refugee problem in Indonesia clearly dominates Australia's political agenda. This evident from its increasingly restrictive immigration policy, as well as federal election campaigns, such as this year's, which saw all major political parties support the country's offshore detention policy.

As Australia does not want irregular migrants, it will continue to pay Indonesia to take care of them. It knows that if it stops that support, asylum seekers will start to arrive on its shores in an unregulated manner.

Imagine a change in circumstances, such as a fundamental, irretrievable breakdown in relations between Australia and Indonesia, or political instability in a neighboring country. Indonesia would certainly be unprepared and frustrated to deal with a massive influx of asylum seekers. The potential for this is very real, since it happened before with the refugees from Indochina.

Indonesia cannot afford to wait until such problem becomes a national emergency once more. It must be proactive and take this decades-old policy problem more seriously to put itself in a better position to deal with any potential unintended consequences. The enactment of refugee-specific legislation can improve Indonesia's ability to deal with transiting migrants in its territory.

While refugee affairs have to some extent become the responsibility of regional governments, as highlighted in the 2016 presidential regulation, involvement by the national government remains of paramount importance. Policy responses to refugees must necessarily focus on the central government.

Due to its geography and policy shifts in other countries, Indonesia is vulnerable to an influx of migrants. Its long history with refugees has been unsuccessful and complicated. Some experiences have been beyond its control, others, beyond the government's capacity, as solutions were not properly implemented.

Ilham is an immigration officer in Pekanbaru. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in public administration at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. From 2014 to 2016, the writer worked with refugees and asylum seekers who were in the care of the Directorate General of Immigration.