Why Indonesia shrugged off Australia’s move to bar refugees

Australia announced this week that asylum seekers who are waiting in Indonesia to be resettled in Australia will not be accepted. EPA/Hotli Simanjuntak

There was a collective shrug in Indonesia over Australia’s decision to stop accepting refugees who are waiting in Indonesia to be resettled in Australia.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday that asylum seekers who registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia on and after July 1, 2014, would no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia.

Morrison asserted that the Indonesian government was well-informed of this decision. But Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that she was still trying to figure out the implications of the new policy.

While the Australian media reacted strongly, putting the new policy on the front page, it attracted little media coverage in Indonesia.

Preoccupied with domestic concerns

Indonesian media showed little interest because they were preoccupied with rising fuel prices as a result of a government subsidy cut. This dominated the headlines in Indonesia.

A day before Morrison’s announcement, Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s administration announced that the government would increase the price of subsidised fuel the next day.

With the Indonesian media and population in general preoccupied with the politically sensitive issue of fuel prices, the last thing on their minds was Australia’s change in immigration policy.

Besides, immigration is not considered a big issue in Indonesia. Yes, the government is concerned about the influx of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in Indonesia, especially when they are perceived to be contributing to increasing crime rates.

But it is not seen as a serious national problem that would force the government to devote significant resources to a solution. After all, the Indonesian government’s resources are already stretched thin. They even faced problems dealing with illegal fishing.

Impact on Indonesia?

Still, the question remains: what are the implications of the new policy for Indonesia and refugees in general?

According to Scott Morrison, the new policy to stop accepting asylum seekers living in Indonesia will stop the practice of people smuggling. AAP/Lukas Coch

Morrison argued that the policy aims to prevent people smuggling. It is doubtful, however, that the policy would stem the number of Australia-bound asylum seekers passing through Indonesia by boat. While many refugees hoping to resettle in Australia register through the UNHCR office in Jakarta, a lot of others are intent on travelling to Australia by boat.

Therefore, the policy would do little to reduce the number of people who are already committed to attempting to get to Australia by boat, rather than wait for resettlement through the UNHCR in Indonesia.

The best way for to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers coming through Indonesia using boats is to prevent them from reaching Indonesia in the first place. But this is easier said than done. As mentioned above, Indonesia’s resources are already stretched so thin that it could not effectively police its own borders.

The vice-commander of the national police admitted that the Indonesian police force has only about 1000 patrol boats. That is just a drop in the ocean when one considers Indonesia’s 95,181-kilometre coastline. The police force also has other responsibilities than preventing asylum seekers from coming to Indonesia.

Indonesia’s obligation?

Finally, there is a question of why Indonesia has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention.

By ratifying the convention, Indonesia could expect international help in dealing with refugees. More importantly, Indonesia could also determine on its own the refugee status of asylum seekers, thus making the Jakarta office of the UNHCR redundant.

The most compelling reason not to ratify the convention is that Indonesia could, in turn, be swamped by refugees.

Even though Indonesia is the largest economy in southeast Asia, as a developing country it is still struggling to lift its population from poverty. The country’s GDP per capita in 2013 was US$3475, nearly 19 times less than Australia’s US$64,468.

By not signing this convention, Indonesia thus could buck-pass the refugee problems to someone else, such as Australia, that has a greater capacity to help. But Indonesia doesn’t seem to care if its neighbour wants to help out less.