Waiting Years On End


According to statistics by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by mid-2017 more than 65 million people had been forced to leave their homes due to conflict, disaster or poverty. A small fraction of them, about 14,000 people, have come to Indonesia seeking for international protection. Without a normative framework and the institutional infrastructure to deal with asylum seekers and refugees, including their applications for protection but also the need for shelter, so far Indonesia has relied on ad hoc measures.

This leave roughly one third of them living on their own (renting private accommodation), another third languishing in prison-like immigration detention centres and last third in community shelters – which is so far the best option. After many years in waiting and prohibited from working legally, more and more asylum seekers and refugees who used to live independently can now longer cover the payments for accommodation and thus are forced to sleep rough out in the streets. In January 2018, there were about 300 asylum seekers and refugees who were camping on the pedestrian walks in front of Kalideres immigration centres in Jakarta, hoping to be admitted into detention – just to have a roof over their heads and regular meals. Behind their voluntary surrender is the knowledge that only those registered in immigration detention will eventually be placed in community shelters, where all their needs are provided for. But the detention centre is full and will not accept any more intakes, not least because they cannot release any refugees into community due to a lack of shelters available.

In face of this grim situation, a new policy paper published by the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS) examines what steps the Indonesian government has taken over the last year to deal with these challenges. In particular, the policy paper examines Presidential Regulation (Perpres) No 125 of 2016 on the Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Indonesia, signed by President Joko Widodo on 31 December 2016 and how this regulation is currently implemented. Based on several interviews with representatives from respective Indonesian ministries and local stakeholders on the ground, the policy paper has found that the long-awaited regulation only reiterates Indonesia’s long-held position on its responsibilities towards asylum seekers and refugees, rather than bring about real change. Perceiving itself as a transit-only country, Indonesia attempts to protect refugees but welcomes them only for a terminable period.

The Presidential Regulation formally complements existing laws relevant to asylum seekers in Indonesia (Law No 39 of 1999 on Human Rights and Law No 37 of 1999 on Foreign Relations) and formalises existing practices. In its present form, the Presidential Regulation remains too broad and must therefore be followed by more detailed guidelines on its technical implementation at the operational level – either by context or case by case – if it is to help establish best-practice procedures. Some of the current provisions in the Presidential Regulation lack detail; for example, on the maximum length of time asylum seekers can be detained, especially when local governments fail to provide them with any alternative to detention.

This new policy paper analyses the content of this Presidential Regulation, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses, in order to alert policy-makers to the remaining gaps in the protection of refugees. Although it makes some progress in regard to rescuing refugees in emergency situations, our analysis concludes that the Presidential Regulation still lacks substantial commitment to the effective protection of refugees. Rather than offer any durable solution for asylum seekers and refugees staying on in Indonesia, the current policies create ‘permanent temporariness’. Not only are resettlement options in safe third countries shrinking, but voluntary repatriation to their conflict-ridden countries of origin is often not feasible. So long as local integration into the Indonesian society is not an option, refugees and asylum seekers will continue to suffer the most in the current stalemate.

Under the new Presidential Regulation, substantial responsibility for accommodating asylum seekers and refugees has shifted to local governments. Right across Indonesia, these local stakeholders are often overwhelmed by these demands, as they lack in knowledge about refugee protection, political will, and also the necessary funds to accommodate asylum seekers and refugees in their midst. There is widespread concern that the Presidential Regulation places many expectations on local governments that they cannot live up to; furthermore, it does not specify any sanctions for reluctant and recalcitrant local governments.

From this point of view, asylum seekers and refugees camping in front of the Kalideres detention centre, as described earlier, are now becoming the litmus test for the Presidential Regulation. While newly elected governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, called on the support of the Ministry of Social Affairs and national immigration authorities to help handle the challenge, Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly reminded the Jakarta government ‘of their new responsibilities under the Presidential Regulation, not least as his ministry lacked the resources to do anything’.

Although the applied rhetoric is of ‘finding a solution together’, the confusion over responsibility can also be seen as direct outcome of an inadequate Presidential Regulation. The frantic phone calls about the Kalideres situation seem more like an attempt to pass the buck. Meanwhile, Agung Sampurno, a spokesman for the Directorate General of Immigration, reiterated that permanent resettlement in Indonesia is not an option: ‘Indonesia is only a transit country, to accommodate migrants to their destination country’, which suggests an unwillingness to take responsibility for the refugees who have been living in Indonesia for already many year.


**The research for this Policy Paper was supported by one of the 2017/2018 ANU Indonesia Project Research Grants.The grants, delivered by the ANU Indonesia Project in collaboration with the SMERU Research Institute (SMERU), aim to stimulate research cooperation between Indonesian and Australian research institutes in the areas of (i) Trade and Industry, (ii) Politics and Governance, (iii) Agriculture, Resources and the Environment, (iv) Social Policy and Human Capital.

The Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS) commenced activities in 2013 and is devoted to the study of Indonesian law and Islamic legal studies. It strives to continuously engage in innovative and important research projects that relate to Indonesia and Islamic legal studies both nationally and internationally.

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