The system for registering, protecting, and finding durable solutions for asylum seekers in Indonesia risks becoming overburdened - potentially sparking unrest - as migrant arrivals continue and Australia’s maritime immigration policy deters boat journeys, officials and activists say.
“The capacity for the Indonesian system is already extremely weak and there isn’t any genuine backing for improving it,” Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, a Sydney-based NGO, told IRIN. “What we’re going to see is more and more bottlenecking there, which only increases the pressure for asylum seekers to get on increasingly dangerous boat journeys.”
As of 31 March the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jakarta had registered 10,623 refugees and asylum seekers, 17 percent of whom are detained by the Indonesian government.
“Despite the high total, we have seen a marked decrease in the number of people registering with UNHCR so far this year,” said Manuel Jordao, UNHCR representative in Indonesia.
UNHCR does not track the number of migrant arrivals in Indonesia, but rather those who seek asylum by approaching the agency or after being intercepted by or surrendering to Indonesian authorities. It is unclear what the impact of the Australian measures is on the number of asylum claims in Indonesia.
According to Jordao, about 2,000 new applications had been filed in 2014, amounting to around half of last year’s rate at mid-year. However, he said, the pressure on the agency remains the same.
“Last year approximately half of those who registered ended up being ‘no-shows’, meaning they did not show up for the rest of the process after they filed the application,” Jordao explained, admitting that waiting for the process could be frustrating for some.
The pace of processing claims has dragged in recent years. Between September 2013 and January 2014, only 570 cases were submitted for resettlement, and 332 departed for third countries, leading many to opt for dangerous boat journeys to Australia in the hands of smugglers - in some instances leaving behind incomplete asylum processes.
“Some arrivals mistakenly see Indonesia as an easy departure point for Australia, and risk their lives on smuggling boats that too often sink along the way,” UNHCR said in a statement.
A military-led maritime border protection policy, “Operation Sovereign Borders”, launched in September 2013, has decreased the number of successful boat crossings from Indonesia to an all-time low in 2014, causing tensions between Indonesia and Australia. While Australia continues its policy of not admitting any asylum seekers who arrive by boat and Indonesia’s detention policy remains, activists and officials fear the situation in Indonesia could become increasingly tense.
Detected and detained
Indonesia currently detains approximately 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers in 13 immigration detention centres (IDCs) around the country.
“The conditions vary from IDC to IDC,” said Jordao, “but many of them do not meet international standards.” He said there are around 300 children currently living in detention.
According to Jordao, the government of Indonesia is planning to construct a new IDC on Kalimantan island, and has plans to house roughly 200 people there, making it the second largest such facility yet.
“This plan to construct a new facility indicates that detention of immigrants will remain as a problem in Indonesia,” Jordao said, adding that keeping people in such a “hopeless situation” makes them more likely to resort to violence.
An April 2013 brawl between Muslim and Buddhist Burmese detainees inside the Belawan IDC left eight people dead.
Alice Farmer, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored at 2013 report on the detention of migrant children in Indonesia, said the government’s decision to construct a new immigration detention centre was disturbing.
“Given Indonesia’s record of violence and poor conditions in its detention facilities, it’s worrying that the government has chosen to build a new facility without any commitment to remedying such basic human rights issues,” Farmer told IRIN.
“Indonesia should be seeking alternatives to detention for these vulnerable groups, not building a new facility to lock up more people in violation of international law,” she said.
Detention, deterrence not lasting solutions
“Australia’s policy of deterrence has been successful so far in that their arrivals numbers are down,” admitted Jordao.
“But deterrence is not a sustainable solution,” he argued. “As long as the countries of origin continue to produce refugees, and they continue to choose Southeast Asia as a destination, the burden will remain in Indonesia and the rest of the region. What we need is a regional solution.”
UNHCR has criticized Australia’s policy, arguing: “When policies and practices are based primarily on deterrence, they can have harmful and, at times, punishing consequences for people affected, particularly families and children.”
And the harm for some begins, activists say, while waiting in Indonesia.
“Asylum seekers, including children, face an uncertain future when they come to Indonesia. While waiting to hear about their refugee claim, they shouldn’t be behind bars,” said Farmer.