Between Trump and Jokowi’s Refugee Policy: What it Means for Indonesia i

A draft of a White House Executive Order to be signed by United States President Trump outlines Trump’s plan on limiting entry to immigrants and refugees. The order includes plans to temporarily suspend refugee resettlement admissions, block Syrian refugees, and cut more than half of the US’s refugee intake — effectively strengthening the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiments exploited during his presidential campaign. But how would Trump’s plans affect Indonesia?

Refugees commonly travel to Indonesia as a transit to be resettled in other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. However, Australia has closed its doors to asylum seekers and refugees registered in Indonesia after 2014, despite the fact that the number of asylum seekers has increased dramatically in the last three years. Consequently, Indonesia has been disproportionately burdened. Due to the lack of resources, detention centers are overcrowded with both voluntarily and involuntarily detained asylum seekers.

On Dec. 31, 2016, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo signed a presidential decree that outlines the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees from abroad. The decree provides a definition of “refugees” based on the 1951 Convention of Refugees, and regulates the protocol in handling asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Indonesia, including search and rescue operations in emergency situations. It assigns the distribution of role for each related institutions, mainly under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Law and Human Rights, in addition to regulating the funds needed in the assistance to the state budget and other legitimate sources.

This newly-issued presidential regulation is a significant initiative from the Indonesian government. It sets an exemplary precedent for other countries in the region and confirms Indonesia’s commitment to extend civilized treatment based on human rights to people fleeing persecution and violent conflicts in their home country. A UNHCR report notes a total of 13,829 persons of concern (refugees and asylum seekers) in Indonesia as of February; most of them come from Afghanistan, followed by Myanmar and other conflict-ridden countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Iraq.

As Indonesia is a non-signatory of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has been largely based on the Immigration Law and the jurisdiction of local authorities. Without a clear definition of the term, refugees were often classified as illegal immigrants and were exposed to threats of detainment. This regulation thus fills the vacuum of legal framework in handling refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

An asylum seeker who has been residing in Cisarua, West Java, for a year warmly welcomes the decree.

“It is for the first time that I have felt valued here. It gives us hope. Most refugees have been stuck here in limbo for 4-5 years. Hopefully we can have our basic rights now. It is an initiative which paves ground for further positive steps like building an understanding with host countries to boost the resettlement process,” he says.

It should be noted that while the Indonesian government should be commended for this step, the regulation still needs further clarifications. The decree introduces the arrangement of shelters for refugees, coordinated by the Immigration Detention Center and the local government. The latter is responsible to allocate the place and provide basic necessities such as clean water, food, and health services. The Immigration Detention Center is also required to provide identity cards, although it is ambiguous whether it is to issue identity cards only to residents of the shelter or to all transit asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. Currently, refugees are only equipped with identity papers from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

This form of emergency response may be adequate to address circumstances of the mass migration of asylum seekers and refugees, such as the Rohingya crisis in 2015. However, it does not specify whether the implementation of the regulation would extend to existing urban refugees, who have been in the country for years while waiting for their resettlement. With no refugee camps available, a majority of them reside in urban areas with no or limited access to health care, education, and other forms of support. This lack of clarity may cause confusion among both concerned officials and the refugee community, and would benefit from more specific implementing regulations.

SUAKA, an Indonesian network for refugee rights protection, has recommended that the Indonesian government disseminate the decree widely while ensuring compliance from local government agencies.  This is imperative to ensure that all government officials are well-equipped with the knowledge of the situation to avoid backlash on the already vulnerable people, such as a previous statement from a government official that refugees bring more harm than good to the local community. The media should also be briefed on the issue, as failure to differentiate asylum seekers and refugees from economic migrants largely influences how the local people view the refugee community.

As a transit country, Indonesia holds an important role in ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees are provided with best durable solutions, including resettlement. With the US being the country with the largest number of refugee intake, Trump’s policy to suspend refugees from resettlement in the US will lead to a greater burden on transit countries, most of which — like Indonesia — are under-resourced to deal with a massive influx of people.

While measures should be taken to implement the presidential decree and future implementing regulations to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are afforded their basic rights to access protection and security without discrimination, it will not be enough without further diplomatic lobbies to urge host countries, such as Australia and the US, to act based on the principles of shared responsibility.

Shaffira D. Gayatri is an individual member of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APPRN); Mohammad Baqir Bayani is the co-founder and co-director of, who lives in Indonesia as a person seeking asylum.

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