The Jakarta Post
Only a few asylum-seeker boats have arrived on Australian territory since the government of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott implemented its new border policies in September 2013. The 'success' of this new approach, which relies mainly on forced returns and outsourced processing of refugee claims in Nauru and Papua New-Guinea, begs the question of what implications these new scare tactics have on the neighboring transit countries. After all, Indonesia served thousands of asylum seekers as a departure point for maritime passages.
Although the numbers of people arriving in Indonesia looking for international protection have decreased substantially over the last four months, more than 10,567 asylum seekers and refugees are currently registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia.
According to its statistics, this number includes 7,241 asylum seekers and 3,326 refugees (8,320 men and 2,247 women).
In January 2014, there were 434 individuals registered with the UNHCR, while in February it was 426 individuals. The majority of newcomers registered at the UNHCR's head office in Jakarta, while dozens were registered by UNHCR caseworkers while visiting Indonesian immigration detention centers (IDC). At the end of February, 1,926 persons, including 1,327 asylum seekers and 599 refugees, of whom 326 were female and 364 were children (with 100 being unaccompanied minors) were held in one of the 13 IDC in Indonesia.
The average waiting time between registration and the first-instance interview for the refugee status determination process is currently between seven and 11 months.
During this time, these asylum seekers do not receive any financial or material support but have to cover their own expenses. In late February, 5,961 individuals were still waiting to be interviewed by a UNHCR officer to have their claims heard on whether they deserve international protection.
Over the course of 2013, 898 persons were resettled by the UNHCR, mainly to Australia but also to Sweden, the US and New Zealand. So far, in the first two months of 2014, 96 refugees have departed for resettlement.
The applications of 150 refugees were submitted to potential resettlement countries, while 943 refugees were still waiting to hear back on their decisions from the potential resettlement states.
So far, it appears nothing much has changed in Indonesia. The IDC are as overcrowded as they used to be and many shortcomings of providing better protection remain. Nevertheless, there have been a number of important changes.
Given the funding restrictions of the UNHCR in Indonesia, unlike in previous years when every recognized a refugee was entitled to a monthly payment to cover accommodation and living costs, nowadays the UNHCR can only support very few cases.
This leaves many stranded asylum seekers penniless, especially when their families back in the country of origin or maybe in a destination country stop supporting them.
Unlike in Malaysia, where asylum seekers can easily find employment in the construction industry or on plantations, even though it is against the law to employ asylum seekers without proper working permits, Indonesia does not offer such options, as it can hardly cope with the high rates of unemployment and underemployment of its own citizens.
Until 2013, the Indonesian police and immigration officials were very active in intercepting and arresting thousands of asylum seekers trying to leave Indonesia by boat; this year, they have widely ceased these activities. In fact, a look at recent interception statistics shows that most asylum seekers have in fact surrendered themselves to Indonesian authorities rather than being captured.
The reason is that most of them have run out of money, while they cannot continue their journeys to Australia due to the new Australian border protection policies.
Once these asylum seekers surrender to Indonesian authorities, in most cases they will be detained in an IDC first. In the words of an Indonesian migration representative, these asylum seekers 'are so desperate that they sacrifice their freedom for food'.
The easiest way to surrender was to go straight to the third floor of the immigration office in Jakarta. Given the increased demand for surrender, however, potential surrenders are nowadays blocked from entering. Bizarre indeed!
Given that Indonesia will be mainly preoccupied with this year's legislative and presidential elections, little change can be expected that would impact the lives of asylum seekers.
In fact, upon inquiry with an officer from the Indonesian Immigration Office about possible mid- and long-term solutions for asylum seekers, he replied, only half-jokingly 'wait and see'.
Although authoritative legislation on asylum seekers is still missing in Indonesia, as many issues get handled on an ad hoc basis, a few small changes could make a big difference in improving asylum seekers' lives in Indonesia, such as formal work permits and access to proper education. Among the current asylum seekers, there are many young people who wish to study; some of them might even have the financial means to do so or might manage to get a scholarship from a philanthropic organization or private benefactors.
Another way of preventing newly arrived asylum seekers from falling prey to people smugglers and other exploiters, would be to provide clear and easily accessible information about the asylum seeking process in Indonesia. From my observations over the last four years, many have only insufficient knowledge about their rights and obligations as asylum seekers.
Given current global political crises and ongoing conflicts, it is unlikely that asylum seekers will stop looking for safe places outside their countries of origin. Due to Australia's 'stop-the-boat policies', a few more asylum seekers might opt for reaching Europe.
Many more, however, will get stuck somewhere on the way, such as in unsafe transit countries, where they experience additional hardships. In face of these global asylum-seeker tragedies, it is high time to ask what matters more, protecting borders or people.
The writer is a McKenzie postdoctoral fellow at the Melbourne Law School, Australia.
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