Urgent: Better handling of Indonesia's illegal aliens

Saturday, July 07, 2001
Jakarta Post
By Lukmiardi

JAKARTA (JP): Over the past two years Indonesian territory has become a stepping stone for illegal immigrants from various countries in search of new lives in Australia or other developed nations -- a trend which requires intense consideration by our troubled country regarding its compliance with international expectations for the treatment of refugees.

The illegal immigrants have requested refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Office in Jakarta and demanded protection based on the 1951 UN Convention on refugees. They have mainly entered the country illegally or legally, but without a stay permit. Most do not carry legal documents.

Many of the immigrants are professionals seeking a better future in Australia and, therefore, belong in the category of economic immigrants, not of those seeking political asylum -- who are entitled to protection from the international community.

In the past year, Australia has been "invaded" by some 3,000 illegal immigrants. As a signatory to the above Convention its government cannot immediately refuse their entry. The Australian government has, therefore, been forced to process their requests, spending some A$50,000 a year on each immigrant.

Most Asian countries, including Indonesia, have not ratified the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, making their entry and status illegal, in violation of Indonesia's 1992 Immigration Act. However, placing them all in quarantine is proving impossible given that their numbers are reaching into the thousands and are likely to increase.

The UNHCR Representative Office has issued refugee certificates for 420 people and is processing another 640. Only a few of them have been accepted by the intended destination countries, so it is unclear how long the "refugees" will stay in Indonesia.

During their stay, they have been able to benefit from the government's inability to uphold the law and are free to go wherever they like.

Given the absence of adequate regulations, no government institution feels responsible for the situation. The word "refugee" is not found in the immigration act, so there is no unit in charge of refugees at the Directorate General of Immigration.

Repatriating such people to their home countries is far from easy as the immigrants have usually run out of money. The impression here is that their respective governments have washed their hands of them, with requests to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to provide costs for their return home becoming the last resort.

However, the IOM is only required to provide this assistance if the said person wishes to return voluntarily. Moreover, suggestions of this assistance have mostly been turned down, as the immigrants say their lives would be in danger if they went home.

This condition will worsen if Indonesia ratifies the Convention on Refugees because of its principles against the rejection of refugees, either in transit countries or the intended destination countries. The government's consideration of this ratification will carry serious consequences given our current multidimensional crisis.

The Australian government has undertaken a number of efforts to hamper illegal immigrants, such as closer cooperation between the Indonesian National Police and the Australian Federal Police, as outlined in their Memorandum of Understanding of Sept. 15, 2000.

It has been agreed that Australia will provide financial assistance to Indonesia whenever Indonesian Police capture the parties behind human smuggling to Australia. This has led to the apprehension of immigrants traveling via eastern Indonesia and, therefore, the increasing number of those being detained in the country.

There is a need to review this cooperation to consider the possibility of any ill-intended foreign intervention regarding this trafficking practice, as well as whether the benefits for Indonesia in this cooperation are commensurate with our national interests.

In the post-Vietnam War period, Indonesia became a transit point for the Vietnamese refugees known as the "boat people" who stayed at Galang Island, a facility provided by the government to accommodate them.

Implementing a similar handling system in the current context is not quite appropriate given the risks entailed; while letting them stay while they freely travel would increase the image of a poorly maintained territory with poor legal enforcement.

It is, therefore, urgent that the government determines an integrated system for handling illegal immigrants who claim to be refugees, by prioritizing national interests and by restraining from hasty ratification of the UN Convention on refugees.

Meanwhile, proper detention facilities must be built as part of efforts to convey the message that Indonesia is not a transit point for illegal immigrants.

The writer is chief of monitoring at the Directorate General of Immigration under the Ministry of Justice. The above views are personal.

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