MMC (Mixed Migration Centre) Research Report, May 2021

MMC (Mixed Migration Centre) Research Report, May 2021

The following excerpt is taken from the MMC research report dated May 2021. The report is titled ‘A Transit Country No More: Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Indonesia’. The MMC (or Mixed Migration Centre) is a leading source for independent and high quality data, information, research and analysis on mixed migration.

Indonesia was once a transit country for many refugees and asylum seekers en route to safety and a new life in third countries. Among those who arrived, most hoped to travel onwards irregularly by boat to Australia. However, since 2013, when Australian policies aimed at curbing irregular movements came into effect, many refugees and asylum seekers have found themselves immobilized and in situations of indefinite transit in Indonesia. Opportunities for resettlement to third countries are now virtually non-existent. Although some refugees and asylum seekers are trying to make the most of being in Indonesia, many feel trapped in uncertainty and struggle to move forward with their lives.

Indonesia currently hosts more than 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers from some 40 countries. In response to the closure of irregular routes from Indonesia to Australia, arrivals since 2013 have significantly dropped, with the exception of Rohingya who continue to arrive by boat to the Sumatran province of Aceh. Since 2013, the Indonesian government has reaffirmed its commitment to providing asylum: it clarified the status of refugees through a 2016 presidential decree, and has shifted away from the widespread use of immigration detention. However, like the refugee and asylum seeker populations it hosts, the Indonesian government assumes that asylum in Indonesia is temporary and that refugees will eventually be able to move on to their final destination, despite the long periods many have now spent in Indonesia. As a result, the Indonesian government is reluctant to assume more responsibility for a population whose needs it believes should be met by the United Nations and wealthier nations in the region and beyond.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — including Indonesian civil society and refugee-run initiatives — offer a variety of support to refugees and asylum seekers. However, great differences exist between the type of assistance offered and donor funding provided – from IOM-supported shelter accommodation and assistance, to UNCHR’s monthly stipends and additional crisis payments by NGOs — effectively creating distinct cohorts within the refugee and asylum seeker population. The majority of refugees and asylum seekers are supported by IOM, living in community shelters. In contrast, roughly 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers in and around Jakarta, West Java and other location live independently within the community, with only the most vulnerable accessing financial support from UNHCR. Increasingly limited funding alongside escalating needs have led to systemic and widespread destitution among refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia as thousands scrape by on shrinking savings, help from friends and family, and whatever informal work they can find.

Although immigration detention is now rarely used, refugees and asylum seekers still fear being detained and feel constrained by rules imposed by local immigration officials. However, despite the many challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers, Indonesia is at least a place of relative safety where they can access services. Access to education and healthcare has improved in recent years, although barriers — including costs and language — remain. The overwhelming challenge is the lack of work rights, without which refugees and asylum seekers cannot access sustainable livelihoods and will remain dependent on donor assistance. Those who do work do so irregularly, at risk of arrest, and with greater exposure to exploitation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a risk and threat multiplier for those already in vulnerable situations, including refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia. Particularly vulnerable are the many who rely on diaspora for support, whose financial security has decreased during the global economic downturn. While UNHCR was able to expand cash assistance to help refugees and asylum seekers in 2020 and is working on continuing this support, it has not yet secured funding required for the whole of 2021.

The prospect of resettlement to third countries is remote, although it is the solution most refugees in Indonesia hope for. In 2020, departures for resettlement from Indonesia to third countries fell to the lowest level since 2012 and the reality is that very few will leave through UNHCR-assisted resettlement – only the most vulnerable among a highly vulnerable group.

Solutions fall into two categories: those that would improve the lives of refugees and asylum seekers while they are in Indonesia, and those that would facilitate their eventual departure, whether through assisted voluntary return to their country of origin or through what UNHCR calls “complementary pathways”. The Indonesian government can and has already taken steps with regard to the former by expanding access to services, but more needs to be done to support livelihoods. Work and training opportunities would assist in the short term and also support refugees to pursue complementary pathways such as educational and labour mobility, which are not among the traditional “durable solutions” for refugees but will become increasingly important in years to come.