The Jakarta city council cleared out a disused military building in Kalideres and converted it into a shelter for refugees and asylum seekers last month. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Who Is to Blame for Indonesia's Refugee Crisis?


AUGUST 14, 2019

Jakarta. The endless flow of refugees and asylum seekers into Indonesia and other countries around the world in the past few years has strained the resources of the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, that now claims it has been massively underfunded.  

The agency reportedly failed to meet its budget by $3 billion every year since 2016. Most of its money came from donors, mostly developed countries party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and private companies. 

The European Union Misson to Asean's chargé d'affaires Lucas Cibor said last week, "We are one of the largest, if not the largest contributor [to the UNHCR]."

According to the agency, its biggest donor is the United States with $950 million. The EU is second with $386 million, followed by Germany, Sweden and Japan.

Indonesia is 75th in the UNHCR's list of donors. The country, which has not ratified the Refugee Convention, contributes $60,000 to the UN agency every year. 

In total, the UNHCR receives $2.5 billion from 98 donors – including private ones – each year. 

That is a far cry from how much the agency actually needs for its programs. Its global refugee program alone costs $6.1 billion to run in the first six months of this year, with $2.1 billion spent in Africa.

Southeast Asia draws $365 million of the agency's budget, most of it ($307 million) going to Bangladesh.

The UNHCR's Indonesian office receives a puny budget of only $7.8 million a year.

Thomas Vargas, the UNHCR representative in Indonesia, said last month the agency lacked the financial support necessary to keep up with the flow of refugees and asylum seekers into Indonesia.

Australia used to be UNHCR Indonesia's biggest donor until the country changed its immigration policy in 2013 to refuse asylum seekers coming down under by boat. Since then, its financial assistance to the UNHCR has also been reduced.

"We need a much bigger budget than what we have currently. In the end, handouts are not sustainable, refugees must be able to take care of themselves," Vargas said last month.

Lack of funding has also plagued other UNHCR offices worldwide, as refugees continue to pour in from war-torn countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The agency's funding gap stood at $4.5 billion in 2018, when over 70 million refugees and asylum seekers sought help from UNHCR offices around the world.

That was the highest number of refugees the agency had ever seen in 70 years since its establishment.

Despite their consistent financial contribution, EU member countries are not unified in their stance on asylum seekers, with strong opposition coming from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Vargas also revealed that many countries who have been party to the 1951 Refugee Convention are now starting to restrict immigration.

Though Indonesia has not ratified the Convention, it is currently home to over 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have waited here for years to be resettled. Most of them come from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia.

Stricter immigration policies have prolonged the resettlement process and refugees and asylum seekers now find themselves spending more time in transit countries than they would have liked to. 

In the past few months, many of them have demonstrated at the UNHCR office on Jalan Kebon Sirih in Central Jakarta, demanding quicker decisions on their refugee status. Hundreds of them even camped out on the streets, forcing the city council to move them to a new shelter in Kalideres.