Many asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Congo, Turkey and Sri Lanka live in Jakarta's immigration detention center. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

The Plight of Refugees in Indonesia


JUNE 18, 2018

Jakarta. Unresolved conflicts result in increasing violence and persecution, which force millions of people to flee their homes in search for safety.

Peace is deteriorating in many regions, and for the first time in modern history, refugees make up almost 1 percent of the global population. According to the 2018 Global Peace Index (GPI) report, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace on June 6, the world is less peaceful today than at any time in the past decade.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), we are witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with 65.6 million people forcibly displaced. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, more than half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and have no access to basic rights such as education, health care or legal protection.

Escaping violence, however, is just the first step in a long process of starting a new life. Refugees and asylum seekers are often left in a legal limbo, without a chance to earn a decent living in places which are entirely foreign to them.


Indonesia, which is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – a United Nations treaty that defines the term "refugees," outlines their rights and obligations of receiving countries to protect them – now hosts 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from Afghanistan.

Around 30 asylum seekers live on the sidewalks of Jalan Kebon Sirih Barat 1 in Menteng, Central Jakarta, near the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

For the refugees, Indonesia is a place of transit before resettlement to Western countries. But those are increasingly unwilling to receive them.

According to Febi Yonesta, chairman of the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection (Suaka), there are many skilled people in the refugee community, who could certainly contribute to Indonesian society and the economy.

But the law does not allow them to work.

"Many refugees are skilled, so when we ignore them and don't allow them to engage in activities that could generate income, they become frustrated," Febi told the Jakarta Globe in a telephone interview on June 14.

He added that if the government cannot provide formal job opportunities, at least it should not bar them from working in the informal sector, as with no income whatsoever many can become prone to illegal activities.

It can take a long time for asylum seekers to get resettled, even between 15 and 20 years.

With no place to live, in Jakarta many of them choose to stay at the immigration detention center in Kalideres. But in January, the facility ran out of space, leaving dozens of people stranded in makeshift tents on the roadside in front of it.

In July last year, the government said it would work to improve the very poor conditions in which asylum seekers and refugees are hosted. The 2016 Presidential Regulation (Perpres) guarantees them shelter, security and provision of basic needs, while the UNHCR processes their relocation.

Refugees do not have a place to sleep. Residents often offer them food, clothes and other necessities. In Ramadan, the nearby mosque which provides free iftar dinners. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

In May, CNN Indonesia reported that UNHCR has been telling refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia to lower their expectations regarding resettlement and start looking for other options, such as returning to their home countries.

Where the government does not come with help, Indonesian civil society is trying to provide relief.

The Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection (Suaka), for example, was established in 2012, in an effort to protect and promote the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia. Its key members are LBH Jakarta and the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG). It provides legal aid and is engaged in advocacy work.

The Refugee Learning Center (RLC) in Cisarua, West Java, was established in 2015 to train teachers and provide education to refugee children who are denied the right of attending state-run schools.

The Refugees and Asylum Seekers Information Center (RAIC) is a volunteer network aimed to provide support to those fleeing persecution.

RAIC also collects donations, distributes aid packages and offers basic health care services.

Febi said the government should partner with these organizations to address the needs of refugees and asylum seekers during their stay in Indonesia.

"As long as Indonesia refuses to accept refugees as citizens, at the very least it can be a good host while they are in transit. Isn't this part of our culture that when we have guests we should treat them well?"

World Refugee Day is observed annually on June 20.