Indonesia is experiencing a fresh influx of asylum seekers using the country as a transit point to Australia.
Conflict and economic hardship are driving the trend, officials say.
Many from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq seek better lives elsewhere, with hundreds transiting through the island nation and embarking on perilous journeys in creaky boats to Australia, officials confirm.
On 28 May, nine people were killed and 11 went missing after a boat carrying 36 Australia-bound undocumented migrants from Afghanistan sank off Indonesia’s Sumatra Island.
On 2 June, police on the eastern island of Sumba arrested four suspected people-smugglers trying to send 59 Afghan and Pakistani migrants to Australia.
Between April and May alone, Indonesian police detained 147 undocumented migrants, mostly from war-torn Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Indonesia's Directorate-General of Immigration (DGI) reported.
“There’s definitely an increase compared to the previous months,” said Muchdor, the director for enforcement at the DGI.
About 800 migrants were intercepted between September 2008 and April 2009 while fewer than 400 were caught in the previous period, he said.
National police spokesman Abubakar Nataprawira said there had been a “significant” increase in illegal arrivals this year, but did not give figures.
At a regional conference on people smuggling in Indonesia on 14 April, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned that the global financial crisis might force more people to seek better lives, leading to more people smuggling and trafficking.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), given Indonesia’s porous borders and lack of resources and coordination among agencies, many illegal arrivals go undetected.
More than 800 asylum seekers are being held in detention centres across Indonesia pending examination by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on their refugee status, said immigration spokesman, Maroloan Barimbing.
"Their main motive is that they don't feel safe in their countries and they have to escape to survive," Barimbing said.
This year alone, Australian authorities intercepted 12 boats carrying asylum-seekers mostly from Afghanistan and the Middle East, against seven last year.
The IOM’s 2008 annual report stated it had helped 136 “irregular migrants” mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan last year, with 91 resettled in third countries and 36 returned voluntarily. The remainder were reunited with their lost families in different countries.
This year the IOM has helped 48 mostly Afghan asylum seekers to return home voluntarily and resettled 36 in third countries, including Canada and Australia, said Jihan Labetubun, an IOM Indonesia official.
Indonesia said the recent arrests of undocumented migrants showed that law enforcers were doing their job well.
"It shows that the government has been successful in detecting the presence of illegal migrants. This is positive in terms of law enforcement," the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, told IRIN.
He also said the government was considering holding asylum seekers under one roof in Jakarta, instead of keeping them in separate immigration centres across the country under the present system, to monitor them more effectively.
Indonesian Justice Minister Andi Mattalatta and a high-level Australian delegation led by Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus met in Jakarta on 4 June to discuss further efforts to tackle people smuggling and the flow of undocumented migrants.
The two countries agreed on new measures, including improving arrangements for the care of migrants in Indonesia, detention management, mutual legal assistance and training for immigration and law enforcement agencies, the Australian embassy said in a statement issued on 4 June.
In a posting on the Australian Home Affairs Ministry’s website, Debus said the government had allocated an additional Aus$654 million (US$531 million) to combat people smuggling.
“Our strengthened border security measures will enable us to identify people smugglers, intercept people-smuggling ventures and prosecute people smugglers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Anita Restu, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Indonesia, said her office was verifying the status of 821 asylum seekers who had applied for refugee status, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran and Somalia.
"They will undergo an interview process," Restu told IRIN, adding that it would take time before it could be determined whether they were eligible for refugee status and resettled.
The IOM said it was cooperating with Indonesia and Australia under a tripartite agreement allowing Indonesia to determine the intention of intercepted migrants.
Those identified as transiting through Indonesia on their way to Australia or New Zealand were referred to IOM for assistance.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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