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Lost in transit
For asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia, the wait for a resolution is getting longer
22 March 2017
By: Duncan Graham

The grim posters feature a rickety craft on a rolling sea under a dirty sky. They are captioned:  “NO WAY. You will not make Australia home.” The small print warns those registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees in Jakarta after July 1, 2014 will never reach their goal.

The government says its policy will “reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia and encourage them to seek settlement in countries of first asylum.” 

A year ago there were around 13,800 known illegal migrants (the official Indonesian term) stranded in Indonesia, with about half from Afghanistan. The number is now 14,475 according to Dicky Komar, the Director of Human Rights in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The increase is despite 1,236 refugees being resettled, mainly in Canada and the US in the same year. This means almost 2,000 got into Indonesia in 2016 bypassing immigration.  Researchers say the usual route is to fly into Malaysia, take a boat across the Malacca Straits to Sumatra then public transport to Java.

Those who ignored the posters and didn’t drown in the Arafura Sea have been caught by Australian patrols and either turned back or sent to offshore detention camps now holding around 1,360. Most are young men; the majority are on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island – the rest on Nauru.

Those who did heed the posters’ message and stayed in Indonesia are seeing their resettlement hopes dashed daily. Last year Australia took 347 (down from more than 800 three years earlier), the US 761. These numbers will tumble. US President Donald Trump is cutting the intake and trying to ban people from six Muslim-majority nations. Refugees from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya are in Indonesia.

Jakarta hasn’t signed the UN Refugee Convention, so those trapped in the archipelago can’t legally study or work. Claims to be a refugee are determined by the UNHCR. The process can take years.

Indonesia is getting serious about trafficking. This month [March] a Rote Island court sentenced notorious people smuggler Abraham (Captain Bram) Louhenapessy to six years’ jail.

He’s not the only one in cramped quarters.  Chairul Anwar of Indonesia’s Transnational Crimes Unit claims the 13 rudenin (detention centers) are full. So around 4,000 squat in community halls or rent rooms around Cisarua in West Java, known for its cheap lodgings.

Anwar said it would take 14 years to clear all asylum seekers at the current rate of resettlement, provided no new arrivals. He forecast conflict unless the process is accelerated.

Indonesia is confronting the issues but Australia is paying the bills. This financial year it has budgeted US$1.7 million for the International Organization for Migration and US$43 million to fund “regional cooperation arrangements in Indonesia … to manage their asylum seeker populations”.

The social strife forecast by Anwar was downplayed by advocate Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney. He said there are “large communities of Afghan families” who have been living in Cisarua for many years.

These domestic arrangements could sink soon. This year Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a decree confirming refugees have three options – resettlement, repatriation or deportation, although countries like Iran refuse to accept returnees. Integration is not on the menu.

“Australia has created the bottleneck that leaves asylum seekers in limbo in Indonesia for years,” Rintoul said. “Australia effectively forces Indonesia to warehouse asylum seekers … while they wait hopelessly for resettlement.”

Australian academic Dr Antje Missbach was at a Jakarta briefing where the figures were released. In her book “Troubled Transit” she wrote “most displaced people in need of protection do not have Indonesia in mind as the ultimate country of final settlement … (but) a way station and the final stepping stone on the journey to Australia.”

After the briefing she told Strategic Review: “Indonesia is no longer so much a transit country but will become more of a containment country.”

Asylum seekers’ hopes of a life Down Under have collided with citizens’ fears of open floodgates, a popular metaphor in the debate with connotations of the “boundless plains” of the national anthem being inundated. 

The major parties support the turn-back policy; polls show politicians inclined to a more humanitarian line could be thumped at the ballot box.

Although Indonesian officials complain about the foreigners, the numbers in the archipelago are small when compared to neighboring lands. There are now more than half a million asylum seekers in Southeast Asia. Most are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar hunkered down in Malaysia and Thailand after escaping alleged persecution. 

Indonesia also has its own refugees.  According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre there are at least 31,440 citizens “who remained internally displaced in Indonesia as a result of conflict, violence and human rights violations”.

The increase in asylum seekers is likely to be discussed in May by a working group of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, a talkfest first formed in 2002 and now involving more than 50 nations and agencies. It is co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia.

Rintoul was pessimistic about the outcome. “There will be no constructive results because Australia has used the Bali Process to enforce anti-people smuggling (i.e. anti-refugee) arrangements onto participating countries,” he said.

“So far the Bali Process has always been more concerned with protecting borders rather than people; if this is the prime goal they have been successful, but that is to the detriment to the people who need protection,” Missbach said.

Whatever the Bali Process decides, it will be tackling symptoms, and not the reasons people flee.

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