Asylum seekers in Indonesia: why do they get on boats?

Refugees in Indonesia face a life of uncertainty and pain. EPA/Hotil Simanjuntak

Indonesia is the last country of departure of most of the asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. At the end of 2007, a team of researchers and I commenced a research project looking at the circumstances of asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. The fieldwork was conducted in the period October 2008 to November 2009.

The risk of return

The most important protection refugees need is protection from what is known as refoulement (i.e. return to a place of danger). This is a protection which state parties to the Refugee Convention, such as Australia, are legally bound to provide. Although Indonesia is not a party to the Refugee Convention, we found that Indonesia does not engage in deliberate refoulement, but there is a risk of the return of individuals who are refugees, but not identified as such.

Refugee status determination in Indonesia is undertaken by UNHCR. Our research found asylum seekers experienced difficulty in accessing UNHCR, delays all the way through the determination process, and refugee status determination which fell short of minimum standards of procedural fairness. All this gave rise to the risk of protection claims remaining unidentified or being wrongly rejected.

Indonesian detention

Most asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia are present irregularly. Most enter without authorisation. Others remain after their visa has expired. Visas are usually issued for very short periods but status determination and the wait for resettlement can take years.

Both the Indonesian Immigration Law of 1992, which applied at the time of our fieldwork, and Immigration Law 2011 which applies now, provide for such individuals to be placed in immigration detention. There is discretion to make exceptions. But that discretion appears more constrained under the new law, and is not uniformly applied.

The conditions experienced by detainees vary greatly between different places of detention and even within the same place of detention can vary for different categories of detainee. However, generally speaking, the conditions would not be tolerated in Australia. Conditions aside, the fact of detention is of course a human rights concern in itself.

Life in limbo

The living conditions of asylum seekers and refugees at liberty in the Indonesian community differ depending on their sources of support. Officially, asylum seekers and refugees are not allowed to work nor do they have access to social support from the Indonesian government. Some receive assistance from UNHCR (through its implementing partner, Church World Service), the International Organization for Migration (pursuant to an arrangement with Australia), or local charities, but others have to fend for themselves.

Most of the individuals we interviewed were receiving assistance from UNHCR or IOM. The subjective perception of many of these interviewees was that the assistance they received was inadequate, although its value in fact exceeded the minimum local wage and, in most cases, the estimated cost of living in the locality concerned. Those who, for whatever reason, were unable to make ends meet on assistance received or who were receiving no assistance at all were working illegally with all of the potential for exploitation that entailed.

Our most significant finding, however, was that material living conditions were not the greatest concern of the individuals we interviewed. Rather most of their very real suffering and despair was caused by:

  • being deprived of the sense of purpose and dignity which work provides,
  • seeing their children miss out on education and hence the opportunities which education provides, and
  • the sense of being trapped in a homeless limbo: unable to return to their country of origin, having no prospect of settling lawfully in Indonesia (an option which many would have chosen if it had been available), and having little prospect of being resettled in a third country.

Why do refugees get on boats?

The profoundly negative impact which life in limbo has on mental health leads some to start thinking that returning to the dangers of their home country would be preferable to their existence in Indonesia.

For example, one refugee woman told us,

If I die in my country it’s better for me. Because here I die and in my country die and it’s the die not change. But in my country you can die quickly by gun. Somebody kill you like this. Here by step!

Others start thinking that attempting to reach Australia by boat is the least horrible option available to them. It is very easy to understand why. From their perspective, all they are risking is their bodies, not their lives. Their lives have already been lost.

Why Australia? Because Australia is one of the very few countries in the Asia-Pacific region which presently provides refugees with effective protection and offers them a new home in the fullest sense of that word.

If our only concern is to stop the boats, one obvious option is to ensure that the treatment those who arrive on boats experience in Australia is far worse than the treatment they will receive in any other country in the region. That may work. Of course, we would have to sink so low we would not be able to keep up even the pretence of caring about human rights and the rule of law. Perhaps some will think that is a small price to pay. I do not, and nor should the government.


Read the rest of The Conversation’s asylum seeker coverage:

Asylum seekers and Australia: the evidence

The Conversation panel on asylum seekers: meet the experts

Infographic: global refugee populations 1975-2010

Refugee intake starts in the region: making a difference in regional burden sharing

Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia: the good, the bad and the unexpected

What does the Australian public really think about asylum seekers?

Resettling refugees: the evidence supports increasing our intake

What role does Australia play in accepting the world’s refugees?

Who are Australia’s ‘boat people’, and why don’t they get on planes?

Uncomfortable truths: busting the top three asylum seeker myths

There’s no evidence that asylum seeker deterrence policy works

There’s more to regional collaboration than the Malaysia Arrangement

How immigration policy harms asylum seekers' mental health

Preventing deaths at sea: asking the experts on asylum seekers