Falling through the cracks

The impacts of Australia’s funding cuts on refugees in Indonesia

Antje Missbach

PHOTO: Antje Missbach

Government and governance, International relations, Law, Social policy | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia

8 August 2018

Indonesia’s refugees have been left in limbo by funding cuts to essential services in Indonesia, Antje Missbach writes.

In March 2018, the Australian Government announced it would cut funding to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia. It is a decision that has ultimately left many refugees in Indonesia without choices, homes, or hope for a speedy resettlement.

Since the Regional Cooperation Arrangement between Australia, Indonesia and the IOM took effect in 2000, the IOM has provided basic health care and shelter for refugees and asylum seekers referred to their care by Indonesian migration authorities.

The IOM has assisted over 23,600 people over the past 18 years. Currently, the IOM’s caseload is close to 9,000 and, for the first time, this number is now capped. Even though new asylum seekers keep arriving in Indonesia – 755 arrived in the first seven months of 2018 – most of them now have no chance of being cared for by IOM.

The current IOM caseload is roughly two-thirds of the total number of asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. The rest are asylum seekers and refugees who live off their own means and use their own funds to rent apartments and houses.

In order to benefit from the IOM care scheme, refugees and asylum seekers must go through the Indonesian immigration detention system to get a referral for relocation in a community shelter. Although residence in community shelters has some restrictions, conditions in the shelters are very much better than in the prison-like detention centres.

When I started my research on asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia in 2010, I frequently came across reports about breakouts from detention centres. Indonesian guards would sometimes show me the breakout spots, such as dug-out tunnels and broken windows. Quite often I had a hunch that the guards might have had a hand in orchestrating the breakouts, simply because locking up refugees and asylum seekers was seen as an unwanted and burdensome part of their job.

More on this: Australia out of step on refugees on world stage

Back in 2010, asylum seekers who had escaped from detention were still able to get on boats and sail to Australia. If they were not keen to face the risks at sea, they could still hope for resettlement by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which was at the time relatively speedy by international resettlement standards.

From late 2013, however, the situation started to change. Instead of breakouts, more and more asylum seekers and refugees were seeking entry to the detention centres, as they had run out of money and could no longer afford private lodging.

Some ended up on the streets or tried sleeping in mosques while relying on donations, but sooner or later they had no other option but to knock at the doors of the immigration detention centres.

According to UNHCR statistics, more than 4,000 asylum seekers and refugees reported themselves to immigration authorities between 2014 and 2017, causing overcrowding which has led to the establishment of many new temporary detention facilities.

There are a number of reasons for their surrender. Since introducing Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013, Australia has pushed and pulled back about 33 boats (including to Indonesia) and interrupted 51 people-smuggling operations. Consequently, boats from Indonesia are no longer reaching Australia and asylum seekers cannot apply for protection in Australia.

Moreover, in November 2014 Australia announced it would no longer resettle refugees from Indonesia who had registered with the UNHCR in Jakarta after June 2014. Since both regular and irregular pathways to Australia are now blocked, refugees have had to accept that they now face much longer waiting times in Indonesia.

Global resettlement fatigue has further decreased their chances of being sent to a third country to start a new life in safety and dignity. Meanwhile, the UNHCR has informed refugees to prepare for a long stay in Indonesia and has suggested they should adjust and integrate as well as they can, as there is little hope for resettlement any time soon.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a damning report on the situation in Indonesia’s immigration detention centres showing that violence, poor hygiene conditions and corruption were rife in the 13 centres spread across the archipelago.

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Indonesian immigration detention centres were not intended to host asylum seekers and refugees for the long term, having been built to hold temporarily convicted foreigners awaiting their deportation. As part of the Regional Cooperation Arrangement, many Indonesian immigration detention centres were refurbished and enlarged with Australian money, so that the people Australia did not want to come to its shores could be locked up indefinitely.

To avoid negative press coverage, the Indonesian government has since allowed more community shelters to be built for housing refugees. These shelters have been funded by the IOM, which in 2014 had already arranged for 42 community housing facilities, hosting about 2,600 asylum seekers and refugees, spread across about six Indonesian provinces.

Although the number of community shelters has increased, 2,211 asylum seekers and refugees remained in detention in July 2018.

There is widespread agreement amongst Indonesian government officials for releasing the remaining detained refugees and asylum seekers into communities, but their release is not proceeding as it should. Their release has been slowed by bureaucratic inefficiency, and, more importantly, a shortage of community shelters for refugees.

According to a Presidential Regulation released in 2016, responsibility for hosting refugees has been delegated by the national government to local governments, which often lack the funding, capacity and capability to arrange for shelters in their municipalities and districts. Needless to say, local heads of government are very reluctant to use their budgets for refugee-related expenses, especially as support for refugees is not high amongst Indonesian voters.

The Australian funding cuts to the IOM and Indonesian government inaction have resulted in a standoff. While the IOM cannot admit any more people to its care schemes, more refugees keep running out of money and have nowhere to go.

Since January 2018, approximately 300 asylum seekers and refugees have been camping out on the streets in front of the Kalideres detention centre in Jakarta, as immigration officials refuse to take them in and local government officials deny having any responsibility for them.

Despite some efforts made through the Presidential Regulation, the decree falls short of offering any legal certainty. Many points remain vague, including responsibility for accommodating refugees for the mid- to long-term. Too much reliance is still placed on support from international organisations, such as the IOM, which is no longer available to the extent that it was in previous years.

More on this: Protecting refugees in transit

One of the most difficult aspects of the situation is the persistent lack of understanding and responsible vision among Indonesian government officials. Most of them tend to cling to the idea that Indonesia is merely a transit country, rather than a country of immigration or resettlement.

Because resettlement and onward migration are now unlikely options for refugees in Indonesia, an increasing number of them feel under pressure to accept so-called assisted voluntary return and reintegration packages.

Genuinely voluntary return requires not only informed consent, but also that people have proper choices. Having to choose between living on the side of the street in front of a detention centre or returning home to a country that does not offer safety, is not a genuine choice.

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