Smuggled refugees stuck amid Southeast Asia crackdown

Lauren Farrow – AAP

4 minute read

Indonesia is struggling to cope with a growing population of refugees and asylum seekers, and says it's getting harder to find countries willing to resettle them.

JAKARTA: There are more than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers living very temporary lives in Indonesia, unable to work to support themselves and with no clue when they might find a country to take them in.

The United Nation's refugee agency has granted refugee status to almost 8000 of them. The rest are still waiting to see if they'll be deemed genuine refugees in need of protection.

But one thing is certain. None will ever make their permanent home in the Southeast Asian country, at least, not legally.

Indonesia, the fourth-most populous nation on earth and home to a staggering 263 million people where many live in poverty, does not accept refugees.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and its only promise to foreigners who arrive there, so often with the help of smugglers, is to help find other nations willing to resettle them.

But as displaced people spend years waiting for new homelands, they cannot work. They are forced to rely on whatever money they still have to feed and house themselves. Those who have no financial lifelines end up in Indonesia's overcrowded detention centres.

As Europe's refugee crisis rolls on, and as America's Trump administration settles in with its anti-Muslim immigration policies, doors are slamming shut and the time refugees must wait for resettlement is getting longer and longer.

Even Australia, Indonesia's ally in the Bali Process regional forum tasked with disrupting people smuggling and trafficking, has put up the Closed sign. It has refused to accept any refugees who arrived in Indonesia after June 2014.

Just a year ago, Jakarta publicly urged Australia to accept more refugees stuck in Indonesia. Indonesia's Director-General of Immigration Ronny Sompie said then the country's detention centres were bursting at the seams, with "illegal migrant" numbers increasing more than five-fold during the previous seven years.

The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, has also called on Australia to lift its ban on accepting refugees who arrived in Indonesia after June 2014, saying the global crisis is making it increasingly difficult to find resettlement countries.

It's a message Indonesia continues to send, loud and clear.

In a recent interview with AAP, Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs again pointed to the strain Australia's position has put on bilateral relations.

"We are always reminding the members that this regional platform (the Bali Process) was established based on the principles of burden sharing, of shared responsibility," says Andy Rachmianto, the ministry's then director for international security and disarmament.

He says Australia's ban on accepting arrivals from Indonesia has done nothing to diminish the flow of desperate people into Indonesia.

Rachmianto makes a veiled reference to Operation Sovereign Borders, with Australian navy ships turning smugglers' boats back to the Indonesian ports they set out from.

"The implications of this policy has breached to some extent our sovereignty, our territorial waters. That is why, at the beginning, we remind our friends that this kind of policy will hamper the bilateral relationships with Indonesia and Australia."

Rachmianto concedes there are now fewer boats arriving in Indonesia, and likes to think better regional co-operation has played a role in that. But Indonesia still has a big problem to contend with.

"The number of asylum seekers and refugees (awaiting resettlement) is not decreasing; on the contrary, it is increasing."

As resettlement options diminish, "... the longer the refugees have to wait. This is the situation that the Indonesian government is facing."

Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia's refugee co-ordinator, says there is much to celebrate about the Bali Process and regional co-operation aimed at disrupting human smuggling and trafficking.

He's heartened by the forum's recent focus on the need to provide protection for refugees in the region and says Australia and Southeast Asian nations have achieved a level of regional co-operation that other parts of the world, including Europe, are still working to match.

But Dr Thom describes Australia's ban on resettling people from Indonesia as "schizophrenic" and believes it is undermining Australia's diplomacy in the region.

He points to tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who've used smugglers to flee UN-documented atrocities, including mass murder and gang rape, in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

They have fled to other parts of Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, but many have also wound up in Indonesia, where they find themselves subject to Australia's resettlement ban.

"How can we say to this region 'we want you to help protect people fleeing the biggest crisis in this region, but we're not going to help you'? It undermines Australia's role in the Bali Process. Either we're engaging as an honest broker, or we're not," Dr Thom says.