Guest Column with Antje Missbach

April 14 / 132

Asylum seekers in transit in Indonesia. Credit: Antje Missbach.
Asylum seekers in transit in Indonesia. Credit: Antje Missbach.

Asylum seekers stuck in transit: do we protect borders or people? 

The ‘success’ of the Abbott government’s new border policies since September relies on forced returns and outsourced processing of refugee claims in Nauru and Papua New-Guinea. 

While few asylum seeker boats have arrived in Australia, these ‘successful’ scare tactics ignore the plight of asylum seekers and refugees stuck in neighbouring transit countries, such as Indonesia. 

More than 10,000 people seeking protection are currently registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia. 

Last year, less than 10 per cent of registered persons were resettled by the UNHCR mainly to Australia, but also Sweden, the USA and New Zealand. 

There will now be even less resettlements, as the number of people arriving in Indonesia seeking international protection in the past four months has decreased substantially. They know it is unlikely they will now find protection in Australia. 

So far, nothing much has changed for those stuck in transit in Indonesia. The immigration detention centres are as overcrowded as they used to be. Shortcomings for providing better protection still remain. 

At the end of February, almost 2,000 people, including more than 300 women and children, were held in one of the 13 Indonesian immigration detention centres. More than 5,000 individuals were still waiting to be interviewed by an UNHCR officer to process their claims for international protection.  

The time between registration and the first interview in the refugee status determination process is almost a year. During this time, asylum seekers do not receive any financial and material support but have to cover their own expenses. 

In previous years every recognised refugee was entitled to a monthly payment to cover accommodation and living costs. Now, the UNHCR can only support very few cases. 

Recent interception statistics show that most asylum seekers have in fact surrendered themselves to Indonesian authorities to be detained in an immigration centre rather than being captured. 

As an Indonesian migration representative claims, these asylum seekers “are so desperate that they sacrifice their freedom for food.” 

Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, so many issues regarding the care of asylum seekers under the UNHCR are handled on an ad hoc basis. 

However, some changes can improve asylum seeker’s lives in Indonesia, such as formal work permits and access to proper education 

Another way to prevent newly arrived asylum seekers falling prey to people smugglers is to provide clear and easily accessible information about the asylum seeking process in Indonesia. 

From my observations over the last four years, many have insufficient knowledge about their rights and obligations as asylum seekers. For example, few are aware that families should generally be exempted from detention and allowed to stay in community detention. 

The current global political crises and ongoing conflicts means it is unlikely asylum seekers will stop looking for safe places outside their countries of origin. 

Due to Australia’s ‘stop-the-boat-policies’, many asylum seekers will get stuck somewhere on the way, such as in unsafe transit countries, where they experience additional hardship. 

In the face of these global asylum seeker tragedies, it is time to ask what matters more, protecting borders or people?

Dr Antje Missbach is a McKenzie Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Asian Law Centre at the Melbourne Law School. She is currently writing a book to give Australian readers a better understanding of the social, political and legal conditions for stranded migrants who have spent years in transit in Indonesia.

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