Indonesia used a regional meeting on migration in Bali on Wednesday to pressure Australia to take in more of the refugees who have become stranded in the Southeast Asian nation as a result of Canberra’s controversial policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.
Indonesia had long been a transit country for thousands of asylum seekers trying to reach Australian shores. But Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013, policing its waters and turning back boats with such efficiency that it has all but blocked off the route. Several hundred new asylum seekers, however, are still arriving in Indonesia every month. An ever-increasing number are now spending years in limbo in a country that neither recognises them as refugees nor offers any possibility of local integration.
Resettlement to a third country is the only option for most of the nearly 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees now stranded in Indonesia (up from 10,000 two years ago). Australia used to be the country that accepted the majority of refugees in Indonesia for resettlement, but now it only takes those who registered there before July 2014.
Other countries with resettlement programmes, many of them preoccupied with the refugee exodus from Syria, have done little to help.
With no right to work and little support available from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, many new arrivals simply hand themselves over to the Indonesian authorities knowing that at least they’ll be fed and sheltered while they’re detained.
But Indonesia’s 13 detention facilities are now bursting at the seams. According to the Global Detention Project, 2,806 asylum seekers are currently in immigration detention, many of them unaccompanied minors living in conditions that are often overcrowded and that Human Rights Watch has described as "appalling".
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting to discuss progress on the Bali Process – a forum for tackling irregular migration in the Asia-Pacific region – Indonesia appealed to Australia to change its policy. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop responded that all 45 countries signed up to the Bali Process needed to do more, not just Australia.
"We have taken about 2,000 people from Indonesia over the last few years who have been deemed to be refugees," she told a journalist. "Australia is already playing a significant role and we urge other countries to do similarly."
Antje Missbach, a researcher based at Monash University in Melbourne who recently published a book about the asylum seekers stuck in limbo in Indonesia, said that upcoming elections in Australia meant it was unlikely the government would reverse its hardline policy of deterring asylum seekers anytime soon.
Indonesia’s own government also shows little sign of changing its policy of not recognising or integrating refugees. “They have their own internally displaced people, high unemployment and many people living below the poverty line – that has always been their stance. But I think if there was political will [to change policy], they surely could,” Missbach told IRIN.
While the previous Indonesian administration indicated that it was prepared to sign up to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the current government, which took power in 2014, has made no similar commitment.
“For the time being, they could try to do more to accommodate asylum seekers,” Missbach said. “For years they have been working on a presidential decree that would provide a domestic framework… but it’s very unlikely they’ll be given the right to work or study.”
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