Indonesia has quietly released a presidential decree addressing its roughly 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers, who were previously overlooked in the country's laws. It is being hailed as a promising, if incomplete, first step for Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
“The decree fills the legal vacuum regarding refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia,” Febi Yonesta, chairman of SUAKA, the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection, told VOA. “Of course, its effects depend on how it's executed on the local level.”
Yonesta said President Joko Widodo's decree, released late last month, had been in the works since 2010 under the previous president, but was stalled by the number of ministries (foreign, immigration, police, law, security, health) involved.
As it stands, the decree has entered the global fray at a time when governments like those of Australia, the United States and most of Western Europe are tightening their borders to refugees and asylum seekers.
The decree's language is fairly broad, outlining procedures that are already informally in place, like routing refugees to Immigration Detention Centers (IDC) and entrusting local or city governments with finding them shelter.
It does not address refugees found in international waters — significant because Indonesia is an island nation — or their right to work and education, the absence of which can create paralyzing boredom for current refugees.
“The decree does not reliably protect all human rights of refugees, such as the right to work and education,” said Yonesta, “but on the bright side, at least it doesn't prohibit them from school or work.”
He added that Indonesia has ratified various human rights instruments that regulate the right to work and education, like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Right of the Child. “So Indonesia is bound by those obligations.”
“It's good that the decree accepts the definition of refugees in the 1951 Refugee Convention, instead of continuing to call them illegal immigrants,” said Muhammad Hafiz, executive director of Indonesia's Human Rights Working Group. “All relevant government agencies should co-sign this designation and recognize asylum seekers and refugees under Indonesian law.”
Yonesta said Widodo likely took the measure forward as decree rather than a law for expediency, because Indonesia's legislative chambers are notoriously backlogged. “Unfortunately, in order to do so, local governments were not involved in the discussion,” he said, even though they carry out the brunt of refugee services.
Sparked by an acute crisis
Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, seems to have taken a particular interest in the Rohingya refugee crisis, which affects the persecuted Muslims of Myanmar's Rakhine state.
“It's true that the re-emergence of the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2015 affected this decree,” said Yonesta, “because the stalling discussion of this topic reopened around that time.”
Just three weeks before the decree was issued on December 31, Widodo met with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the best way to send humanitarian aid to the Rohingya.
The decree designates responsibility mainly to the local government and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintains a presence across Indonesia. According to a 2010 regulation from the Indonesian director-general of immigration, “irregular migrants” can register as asylum seekers with the local office of the UNHCR and stay in Indonesia while their claims are processed.
A member of UNHCR Indonesia said they were still reviewing the decree and it was too early for an official comment.
Still, the decree should not be seen as a steppingstone toward Indonesia's ratification of the U.N. convention on refugees. It will have “no bearing on the country's current position as a non-signatory of the convention, making it only responsible for repatriation and settlement,” Andy Rachmianto, the Foreign Ministry's director for international security and disarmament, told The Jakarta Post.
It also designates the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) with discovering asylum seekers, particularly by conducting search-and-rescue operations on ships suspected of containing them. Such measures might make the U.N. convention beside the point.
“The [U.N.] Refugee Convention is not the only source of state obligations towards refugees,” Martin Jones, human rights lecturer at the University of York, told Inside Indonesia.
“A domestic asylum law could be developed from alternative sources, without needing to sign the convention.”
Will refugee influx increase?
Historically, Asia has not co-signed the European model of broad humanitarian aid that emerged after World War II. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Indonesia belongs, for instance, prizes non-interference in the domestic matters of member states.
Indonesia's diverse refugee population includes Afghan Hazaras, Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and Somalis. Many saw Indonesia as a brief stop on their transit to Australia, but ever since that country moved to block maritime asylum seekers in 2013, thousands of them have been stuck in limbo in Indonesia.
Unlike in neighboring Malaysia, where manual labor is accessible to migrants and refugees, many stuck in Indonesia "sacrifice freedom for food," accepting that they cannot work so they can at least get food and shelter in one of the country's 13 immigration detention centers.
But Indonesia's IDCs are full to bursting, so it remains to be seen whether the country will expand its infrastructure, as well as if the decree will increase the influx of refugees.
Yonesta thinks it will not. “Indonesia is a state of transit. The decree does not affect the rate of resettlement to a third country, which is what most refugees coming to this country want.”