About Asylum Seekers in Indonesia

Background on Indonesia and Refugees

In August 2012, Australia reinstated the much-denounced “Pacific Solution,” which sends migrants to offshore facilities in Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for processing of their asylum claims. These claims should be heard in Australia. Australia claims that such measures help to deter irregular boat migration, yet in the months after the Pacific Solution was reinstated, significant numbers of boats continued to arrive in Australian territory.

Australia banned people arriving by boat (and refugees registered in Indonesia after July 2014) from ever resettling in Australia. It also sent thousands to now-closed offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea to have their refugee claims processed.

Until 2013, Indonesia was exclusively seen as a transit country for refugees seeking to come to Australia (and New Zealand by extension) by boat. Since then, Operation Sovereign Borders been implemented, with less than 1% of refugees from Indonesia after 2018 being resettled annually to Australia (a download of UNHCR’s data in table format is available here) .

Jokowi’s Presidential Decree and Indonesia’s commitment to the Non Refoulement Principle in the management of foreign refugees are the only legal mandates and guidelines that the country observes. However, each region and governor has a different interpretation of what these entail.

This has created a protracted transit situation for refugees. They can no longer go back home due to ongoing threats of persecution, meanwhile their prospects of being reunited with family and friends and living peacefully in Australia is diminished due to its hard-lined border protection policies and cuts in our humanitarian program intake since the COVID-19 pandemic began have certainly worsened the situation.

About Asylum Seekers in Indonesia 1

Asylum Seekers in Indonesia Today

Today’s backlog of asylum seekers is partly a product of Australia’s controversial border policies, which aim to block asylum seekers travelling by boat from ever reaching Australian soil. Australian funding has helped to step up migration enforcement and stopped boat departures from Indonesia.

As Australia shut its doors, refugee and asylum seeker numbers rose in Indonesia, from a population of several hundred through most of the 2000s, to thousands a decade later.

There were just under 14,000 foreign refugees in Indonesia in 2021. More than half are from Afghanistan and the rest are from various other countries or are stateless peoples. Arrivals since 2013 have significantly dropped, with the exception of Rohingya who continue to arrive by boat to the Sumatran province of Aceh.

Refugees in Indonesia have no rights. They are not allowed to work, attend schools or drive vehicles. They have restricted mobility and have very little self-agency. These people are regarded officially as “illegal aliens”. Most of them were detained in some sort of jail-like detention centre until 2019.

Today, refugees and asylum seekers live in urban areas across Indonesia. Some are held in immigration centres, others are in IOM-funded (International Organization for Migration) community housing and others are essentially homeless. They live on the street or in makeshift shelters.

Further Resources and Reading

Behrouz Boochani – No Friend But the Mountains

I am including Boochani here because of his award winning masterpiece of prison literature No Friend But the Mountains. He typed it out text message by text message on a smuggled cellphone to his translator in Sydney. This is a masterpiece. It was composed from Australia’s offshore Manus Island prison, where successive governments have imprisoned innocent people without charge indefinitely.

The Iranian-Kurdish writer and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani fled his home country in 2013 because he feared the government would imprison him for his journalism. When he arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker, he was shipped off to Manus Island, an offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea.

Boochani’s book No Friend But the Mountains, which details life inside the camp, was released in 2019 in Canada and the U.S. He won the $95,000 Victorian Prize for Literature in February 2019, but he was not allowed to enter Australia to receive the prize.

Behrouz Boochani holds a Masters degree in political geography and geopolitics. He is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, scholar, cultural advocate, writer and filmmaker, founder of the Kurdish language magazine Weya, an Honorary Member of PEN International. Read more about him on his Wikipedia page here.


For three days I have been locked inside a hell that I can still barely fathom, one that I experienced on the page, but that Behrouz Boochani and his fellow prisoners on Manus Island have lived for over five years. What’s worse was the knowledge that we have all been made accomplice to their suffering.

No Friend But The Mountains is a masterpiece of prisoner literature, up there with Solzhenitsyn and Levi (and no, I’m not going the Godwin’s Law route, but I had visceral shivers reading some of the familiar conditions in that hellhole). Moreover, it is an instant Australian classic. Probably the most important book published here this century. The prose is stunning, the poetry sublime. It is dignified and courageous, honest and excoriating. And yes, it is heartbreaking.

I urge everyone to read it, to know what is happening in our names, but also to experience a book like nothing you are ever likely to have read before. And remember, for many of us, Behrouz was our grandparents, or our parents. Fleeing persecution, yearning for freedom in a land fabled for its warmth and kindness. In this time of fear and division, let us all work instead towards a more compassionate, welcoming Australia.

~ Australian Author Bram Presser