Refugees in Indonesia: Australia's biggest political pawns

July 28, 2021
A scene from Freedom Street. Photo: Supplied

In Indonesia, thousands of refugees are living in total destitution in Jakarta, or are detained/placed across the country in Australian-funded accommodation managed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

They have been left in limbo, without any certainty of their rights or resettlement. To add to the uncertainty, refugees who registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Regugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia after June 2014, are not be able to access resettlement in Australia through the UNHCR. There are also thousands of refugees who arrived before 2014 and who are yet to be resettled elsewhere. Quite possibly, they will remain in Indonesia indefinitely.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and does not offer refugees protection. Furthermore, it did not even recognise the presence of foreign refugees until a Presidential Decree was issued at the end of 2016. Until then, refugees and asylum seekers were regarded as illegal aliens.


Freedom Street. Photo supplied

It wasn’t until 2019 that the majority of refugees in Indonesia were released from immigration detention and into community housing. However, since Australia cut its funding to IOM Indonesia, thousands of refugees who were registered with the UNHCR after March, 2018, have been left destitute.

Since Australia's Operation Sovereign Borders began, it has shifted Indonesia’s role from that of a transit country for refugees coming by boat, to an unintended final destination for most refugees seeking asylum in Australia.

Furthermore, the Australian government's hardline policies have inspired other countries to take a much harsher approach towards those seeking asylum.

Since 2013, starting with Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian government has imprisoned refugees in offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, as well as in onshore hotel detention.

Indonesia has developed a more hardline border policy since the Bali Process Regional Agreement was signed in 2002. Under the agreement,  Australia funds Indonesian police and immigration officials to intercept refugees seeking to enter Australia by boat, and more. This has incentivised Indonesia to hold around 14,000 refugees (on average) in Indonesia, since 2013.

Despite the decree, refugees in Indonesia do not have any rights. Since 2019, their only right is freedom of movement inside the country. Although most are now no longer in detention, refugees can be sent back into detention arbitrarily.

Hundreds of destitute refugees across Jakarta did beg at one point to be let into detention centres, so they could be fed and sheltered. Indonesia one of the only countries where refugees have done so.

Refugees cannot work, attend formal schools, own a vehicle, marry outside their refugee community, nor do they have any civil rights. Their only reprieve is that the incidence of discrimination against foreigners is relatively low in Indonesia, compared to the plight of refugees in Malaysia and Thailand.

Most refugees in Indonesia aren’t lucky enough to attend community programs run to help develop their skills and their voices, as there are simply not enough. Most refugee children attend refugee-run informal schools, or NGO-run schools. Those who are allowed to attend Indonesian schools, aren’t allowed to receive certificates.

Most refugees under the IOM’s care receive only A$125 per adult and A$50 per dependent a month. Those outside the program either become destitute, or rely on various local and international NGOs to survive.


Freedom Street. Photo: Supplied

Sadly, 14,000 refugees is a very small number in the Indonesian context — equivalent to the size of a neighbourhood in Jakarta. While Indonesia is a middle income country, millions of its own citizens are making less than what some refugees receive in their monthly stipends. They also lack access to clean water, regular food and shelter. In some parts of the country, there are much larger populations of oppressed minority groups than refugees.

Taking care of foreign refugees, unfortunately, is not a priority for the Indonesian government.

Refugees in Indonesia do not have agency and rely entirely on Indonesian or foreign NGOs to support their resettlement endeavours. Most aren’t exceptional, and are just ordinary people seeking a safe place where they can live in peace. These people are mostly invisible.

As an Australian and an Indonesian — who has had the opportunity to explore and research the situation on the ground, and be involved in advocacy since 2015 — I cannot stand by while Australia outsources its responsibilities to my original home country.

Right now, most refugees in Indonesia will never be lucky enough to realise their hope of resettlement in other countries. Indonesia has now largely accepted that it is no longer a transit country for refugees, thanks to the Australian government's incentives.

A large majority of Indonesia's refugees have family members and friends who made it to Australia prior to their own asylum journey. Sadly, some of these friends and family members who arrived in Australia by boat also face uncertainty. They are still on various non-permanent protection visas, and therefore ineligible to help resettle those stuck in Indonesia.

The true ramifications, costs and sacrifices of thousands of lives are immeasurable. Some fortunate refugees, living outside IOM accommodation are running and participating in refugee-run organisations, programs and initiatives. These groups need support to make a tangible difference and expand their capabilities.

However, because the majority of refugees in Indonesia are dependent on the IOM for survival, they lack agency and are not in a position to take such initiatives. They have also been rendered invisible and treated as political pawns by the Australian government, which has exported its cruel border protection policy to neighbouring countries. Their plight, and the mistreatment of refugees in Indonesia is connected to the situation of refugees in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Australia.

Many refugee advocates in Australia (and Indonesia) don't connect or fully understand the bigger picture and how we got into this situation. And that is where the documentary Freedom Street comes in.

I made this film out of a personal sense of duty, not only because I am a proud and grateful citizen of Australia, but also an Indonesian.


Filmmaker Alred Pek (right) with the cast of Freedom Street. Photo: Supplied

The film explores the plights of Joniad, Ashfaq and Azizah, three refugees trapped in Indonesia as a consequence of Australia's policies. It tells their moving stories, whilst deconstructing Australia’s cruel border protection policy in a series of conversations with experts.

The conversations provide insight into Australia’s long history of border control and Australian-Indonesian relations, contextualising the struggle of our three protagonists as they look towards an uncertain future.  

The documentary highlights the humanitarian and financial cost of Australia’s undemocratic policies, while sounding the alarm for meaningful and humane solutions to the refugee issue.

The boats may have stopped, but Australia has designed a system that perpetuates the oppression of refugees and outsources it to neighbouring countries.

Freedom Street is an ongoing project, funded primarily through donations, which can be made via the Documentary Australia Foundation, and are tax-deductible.

[Donate here: Documentary Australia — Freedom Street]

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