Indonesia is apparently looking for an island where it can put upwards of 10,000 asylum seekers, after Australia announced it would no longer resettle any of them. Conditions in the country have been poor for the thousands who flee there from conflicts around the world, and experts warn they're about to get much worse.
Every year thousands of asylum seekers flee to Indonesia, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Somalia. Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations' international refugee convention, so it has no obligation to permanently resettle them.
A vast majority of refugees seek asylum in nearby Australia instead, either by paying a smuggler to take them on the dangerous journey by boat or by applying to the UNHCR for refugee status and applying for a visa.
Now Australia's government has announced that the country will not take any asylum seekers who have arrived in Indonesia after 1 July this year, even those who have been cleared and given refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"We're taking the sugar off the table, that's what we're doing," said Immigration Minister Scott Morrison during a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We're trying to stop people thinking that it's okay to come into Indonesia and use that as a waiting ground to get to Australia."
In response, the Indonesian government has begun looking into solutions. Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly has briefed Indonesian President Joko Widodo on a plan to send asylum seekers to an isolated island.
"Now we have started thinking again about this policy," Yasonna told The Australian on Wednesday. "We only need to find the island."
Yasonna met last week with Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, and reportedly raised serious concerns about Australia's policy shift. Yasonna stressed that the island plan was made necessary by Australia's unexpected shift in policy.
"We ask Australia to think about a cooperative policy because this is not only their problem," he remarked to The Australian. "Australia suddenly, unilaterally, closed [its door] but this problem is impacting on us."
Antje Missbach, a research fellow at Monash University, has spent years studying the conditions of the unsettled asylum seekers biding their time in Indonesia.
"The most difficult thing is that they don't know what's going to happen — they can be waiting for one year, five years, or 12 years," she told VICE News. "When you think about someone who has a prison sentence, they know how long that punishment is. Refugees in Indonesia often have no idea how long their ordeal will be. They're in limbo, they're stateless."
"If they're there for a long time, over a year or so, they often develop mental health problems," she added. "There are problems with prescription medication. Some I have seen take many sleeping pills to deal with it, to just help time pass. The resilience and endurance that they do have, it comes from the belief that they will be resettled, but now this last piece of hope is being wrecked. I expect in the coming months we will observe even worse impacts on their physical and mental well-being because of this."
Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Australia, warns that Australia's policy of refusing to resettle refugees from Indonesia could have a dire impact, particularly on children.
"In the past, there's been a lot of talk in this country about asylum seekers who arrive on boats being queue jumpers — that they deny 'genuine' refugees that come through the UNHCR process a place in Australia, which is wrong to begin with," Pearson told VICE News. "But now, the Australian government is also effectively blowing up the queue."
She explained that many asylum-seeking children live in Indonesia for years awaiting resettlement — either neglected and unprotected on the streets or arbitrarily detained in terrible conditions.
"This callous decision will force children to remain in limbo in Indonesia longer," Pearson added. "This means they're likely to face more mistreatment and abuse, and lack proper access to education."
It is unclear what conditions would be like on the proposed island, but opportunities for employment and schooling could be minimal. HRW last year released a report on the conditions of migrant children in Indonesia. The threat of being detained in an Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Indonesia is a particular worry. Of the 42 children HRW interviewed in their investigations, all but seven had been detained.
"Indonesian law permits immigration detention for up to 10 years without judicial review," the report says. "As a result, many children remain in detention for years, facing an array of abuses including physical violence from immigration officials, bribery and confiscation of property, and lack of basic necessities. The impact of prolonged, indefinite immigration detention is particularly severe for children, many of whom experience post-traumatic stress disorder or depression."
The testimony of migrants about the life of minors inside IDCs is alarming.
"There were 20 or 30 unaccompanied minors," a migrant told investigators, recalling his time under detention at the Kalideres center in the sprawling capital of Jakarta. "Whenever the boys talked on the phone with their families, they would cry. The boys cried all the time. They were the most powerless in there. They would get attacked."
The plans for the refugee island being proposed by Indonesia could possibly take the shape of an IDC, similar to the facility on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that is operated by the Australian government. Island detention centers are a precedent established by Australia to process refugees who arrive in Australian waters in countries Papua New Guinea and the island nation of Nauru. The arrangement is supposed to deter asylum seekers. This year, the cost of operating these facilities surpassed a billion Australian dollars.
"The refugee convention wasn't set up so people can go forum shopping," Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison remarked to the ABC. "It was to provide support and protection to people and that's what our program does."
The Australian government's position is that their new policy will help the situation by discouraging asylum seekers from traveling to Indonesia in the first place, because the reward of coming to Australia is now off the table. Indonesia, left with an inflow of refugees with no major destination of resettlement, have to craft their own policy to contain and deter refugees.
It's unknownwhether the prospect of confinement to an island in Indonesia will raise the stakes enough to stop the flow of refugees — and if it does, it's equally unknown where those who are fleeing war and persecution will end up instead.
Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell
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