UNHCR officers tended to asylum seekers camping out in front of the UN Refugee Agency's office in Central Jakarta last week. (Antara Photos/M. Risyal Hidayat)

Refugees Are Humans Too... and Bring Many Benefits to Local Communities


JULY 16, 2019

Last week the plight of refugees in Indonesia came to the forefront in Jakarta, as hundreds of refugees camped outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees headquarters in Central Jakarta.

After months of sleeping on the streets in Kalideres, West Jakarta, over 500 refugees demanded their basic rights to permanent shelter, proper health service, food and quicker resettlement.

The desperation of refugees in wrinkled tents on Jakarta's sidewalks has caught the attention of many, bringing the thorny but often invisible issue of Indonesia's 14,000 forgotten refugees up to the surface.

Saefullah, the regional secretary of the Jakarta administration, announced plans to temporarily transfer the refugees from the streets to more tents, but this time on government-owned land in West Jakarta. However, there is no clarity to what the next steps will be. 

Refugees have been stranded in Indonesia for many years, with both Australia and Indonesia refusing to take responsibility for them. 

In March 2018, Australia cut off its funding to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Indonesia, leaving more than 300 refugees, many of whom are women and children, homeless and hopeless on the dusty streets around Kalideres.

After living for a year with inadequate support, these refugees finally took their grievances into the open by setting up camp in front of the UNHCR office.

While the worldwide number of refugees rose to 25.9 million in 2018, resettlement figures decreased to less than 0.4 percent out of all refugees.

The declining number of resettlement options for refugees is leaving more of them living in destitution for years and decades with more uncertain period of waiting. 

Restrictions to work and education, combined with a low rate of resettlement, have forced many refugees to live far from a humane life in Indonesia. Cuts in international funding make it even harder for organizations like the UNHCR and IOM to fulfill the needs of refugees in transit.

There were some positive signs from Sandiaga Uno when he was still the deputy governor of Jakarta to offer a temporary refugee employment scheme. There was also the heartwarming fact that refugee kids were welcomed at local schools in Medan, North Sumatra. But clearly, more efforts are needed.

As refugees might now stay for much longer in transit in countries like Indonesia, a discussion on integration is also necessary.

We know firsthand that refugees contribute to their local communities. They improve the economy, create jobs and bring valuable community benefits. Our refugee communities have started schools, community programs and volunteer organizations.

British economist Philippe Legrain's research has shown that for every $1 invested in welcoming refugees, a return of $2 can be expected within five years.

Policy debates, statistics, spreadsheets and economic outcomes can often cloud what the debate should first of all focus on  – people's inherent worth.

There are skills that refugees are often adept at, such as translation, cooking and tailoring, that can add to the diversity of the workforce. When allowed to work and learn, refugees can contribute to the local economy. Every nation, including Indonesia, can benefit if refugees are seen as assets. 

Mohammad Baqir Bayani is a refugee right defender; the founder and Program Director of HELP for Refugees; co-founder of Refugees of Indonesia, Jakarta Refugee Network and Jakarta Refugee Advocacy Network. He is a refugee in Indonesia.

Tamara Gondo is the leader of non-profit organization Second Chance Initiative. She is also a community development consultant for refugee groups.