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Map of Indonesia

Does the Indonesian government allow refugees in the country?

While Indonesia is not a signatory party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the government obeys the international customary law of non-refoulement, which forbids countries from repatriating refugees back to their countries of origin where they are likely to face danger. According to the Presidential Regulation no. 125/ 2016 on the Treatment of Refugees, asylum seekers who are found in Indonesian waters or on land will be registered by the Indonesian Immigration Office in collaboration with UNHCR, which has the mandate to determine refugees' status. Those who are granted refugee status can stay in Indonesia until they are resettled to a third country or decide to voluntarily return to their countries of origin. Indonesia does not offer refugees opportunities to integrate locally by becoming Indonesian citizens.

Where do the refugees in Indonesia come from?

Most refugees in Indonesia come from Afghanistan, many of whom identify as part of the Hazara ethnic group, which has had a long history of systematic discrimination, targeted violence, and persecution in Afghanistan. The last few decades of war in their country has also left many of the Hazara people displaced away from their traditional heartlands to live in the fringes of the state, at the borders of Iran and Pakistan. Meanwhile, many others have fled searching for refuge in other countries.

The second largest refugee group in Indonesia come from Myanmar, many who identify as part of the Rohingya ethnic group. Due to the drawing of state borders between Bangladesh and Myanmar by colonial powers in the past, the Rohingya ethnic group that has a history of living nomadically between these countries, were left stateless. They are not acknowledged as citizens of any country. In recent years, many Rohingya people have been driven out of their lands in Myanmar and are force to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly Malaysia, Thailand, and a small group has reached Indonesia.

A crowded market in Afghanistan

Why did the refugees leave their home countries?

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, refugees are people who: owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, in not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it.

All refugees, by definition, are forced to leave their countries due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

What does it mean to not have a nationality?

Many people around the world take for granted being born with a national identity. Belonging to a nation offers a homeland, government protection, the right to a passport and identification and access to services including health, employment, education and social security. The UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people around the world do not have a nationality. These people are referred to as stateless people. The World's Stateless Report suggests a more accurate number to be over 15 million. Statelessness can occur due to the redrawing of borders, decolonization, gaps in nationality law, the birth of a child to parents of different nationalities, lack of access to a birth certificate and discrimination against certain ethnic groups. Concentrations of stateless people can be found in places including Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Kuwait, The UAE, Syria, Côte d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Dominican Republic, the Balkan States and the former Soviet Union.

How do the refugees arrive in Indonesia?

Depending on their country of origin, asylum seekers arrive in Southeast Asia by different means. For example until recently, citizens from Iran were granted tourist visas on arrival to Indonesia, so some Iranian asylum seekers would fly directly to the country. This has now changed and fewer asylum seekers fly directly to Indonesia. Most people leave their region of origin and pass a number of countries en route to Southeast Asia. Some routes pass through Pakistan, India, to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Again, depending on the visa conditions of each individual and the country through which they pass, transport may be via overland smuggling or occur officially. Many people arrive in Malaysia and seek a people smuggler to take them to Indonesia via boat (e.g. Sumatra or surrounding islands). Once in Indonesia, many asylum seekers travel domestically to Jakarta where they register with the UNHCR.

How do the refugees fund their stay in Indonesia?

Refugees are a diverse group of people and come from different socioeconomic backgrounds in their countries of origin. A majority of refugees in Indonesia receive accommodation and financial support from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). This allows them to fulfill their basic needs until they are resettled to a third country. Meanwhile, a significant group of refugees live 'independently' in Indonesia. They rely on the funds that they brought with them when they left their countries of origin or on family and friends who send money from other countries. However, as the waiting period of resettlement is prolonged indefinitely, this group of refugees may find it increasingly difficult to sustain their livelihoods. Refugees in Indonesia are prohibited from working while the IOM has stopped registering new beneficiaries since March 2018. So for many refugees, the question of funding their stay is an ongoing struggle.

Are refugees allowed to work in Indonesia?

Due to a lack of work rights for refugees in most Southeast Asian countries, employment is not a viable option for them to support themselves. Very few refugees and asylum seekers engage in black market employment, as the impact of breaking the UNHCR conditions and being deported is too great. People support themselves by relying on personal savings or loans from relatives abroad, sent through money lending agencies. Vulnerable people without savings or family support might qualify for limited financial assistance through a few humanitarian actors. All others simply have to live frugally, eat fewer meals per day, sleep in shared rooms and share communal resources.

How long does it take for refugees to be relocated?

In the past, it would take between 3-4 years for UNHCR to process resettlement for refugees in Indonesia. However, there has been an unprecedented decline in resettlement opportunities worldwide despite the increase of displaced people around the world. In early 2018, UNHCR informed refugees that due to limited opportunities for resettlement, many refugees will have to stay in Indonesia indefinitely. A lot of refugees have been living in Indonesia for over five years without any guarantee of being relocated to a third country. 

How many refugees live in Indonesia right now?

There are approximately 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia. As an archipelago, Indonesia does not have a large refugee population compared to its neighboring countries. Malaysia has about 160,000 refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people, and Thailand has about 590,000. There are approximately 2.3 million refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people in the Southeast Asian region.

Despite its relatively small refugee population, due to its strategic geographical location, Indonesia is often seen as a final transit country for people trying to migrant to Australia and New Zealand. However, as opportunities to resettle are declining and most refugees are not able to return to their countries of origin, refugees are finding their 'transit' in Indonesia has been prolonged indefinitely.

What do refugees think about Indonesia and its people?

This question is difficult to answer. Refugees are diverse and so are Indonesian local people. It is unlikely to get one answer to this question as refugees’ experiences vary depending on the city they are staying and their economic and educational backgrounds. A significant number of refugees in Indonesia affiliate themselves with communal organisations such as RLC in their areas of residency, which are open for community visits. The best answer to this question is to find out for oneself, and make a judgment based on the individual person’s experience with the refugees, in or outside their formal circle.

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Nowhere to Go is A Short Film by NYRA Studio
in collaboration with the Refugee Learning Center in West Java, Indonesia

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