By Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti,

Translated and edited by Antje Missbach and Nikolas Feith Tan

In May 2015, three boats with more than 1800 people onboard reached Aceh after a long, hazardous trip. Although the Indonesian navy had tried to prevent at least one boat from landing by first equipping it with fuel and food and then forcing it back out to sea, eventually these people were allowed to come on land. Not least, because Acehnese fishermen had ignored the military’s orders and rescued many of these desperate people. Following a trilateral crisis meeting of the foreign ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter two promised to provide the Rohingya boat people with shelter for up to a year, provided that all costs would be covered by external agencies and the Rohingya would be resettled to third countries in the meantime, a stipulation impossible to meet.

Rohingya count as one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in Asia, as they do not have citizen rights in their home country of Myanmar. Political and religious persecution, but also extreme poverty, drive them across the borders into Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, the latter is the most sought after destination country as Rohingya can find work there. Indonesia is not just a transit country for the Rohingya, but for displaced people from more than 40 countries in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As a non-signatory of the Refugee Convention, Indonesia has no obligation to accept asylum seekers and integrate recognised refugees, but based on humanitarian considerations it respects and protects the human rights of those who stay temporarily and thus provides some form of accommodation and basic care for asylum seekers and refugees.

A humanitarian approach

So far, Indonesia has opted for a humanitarian approach and allowed the UNHCR to receive and handle the Rohingya like other asylum seekers and refugees. The UNHCR in Jakarta is working very hard to manage the refugee status determination process, voluntary repatriations, and resettlements. But despite all these efforts, the UNHCR in Jakarta faces the consequences of global resettlement fatigue. Refugees in Indonesia are not a resettlement priority. In addition, the many rejected asylum seekers who cannot be repatriated to their countries of origin are becoming an increasing burden for Indonesia. Although Indonesia receives international aid to provide for them, it faces increasing social problems with their temporary quasi-integration. Indonesia’s hospitality could thus backfire, if it becomes a magnet for other displaced people in the region, who hope that their treatment in Indonesia would be better than in Malaysia or Thailand. So far, however, both neighbouring countries host much larger numbers of displaced people than Indonesia.

To provide this basic care, Indonesia depends on support from international organisations, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other countries, such as Australia. This dependence is seen with critical eyes by many Indonesians politicians and policy-makers. In their view, forcibly displaced migrants are not the only victims, but Indonesia as a transit country is also a victim in this current hegemonic international constellation, in which richer, powerful countries can keep unwanted forced migrants in transit states. It is not helpful at all that Australia keeps building higher walls and turns a blind eye to the consequences of its asylum policies for neighbouring countries.

Although Australia has been providing a lot of humanitarian aid for refugees and asylum seekers to Indonesia both directly and through international organisations, when anti-refugee sentiments are high, the relationship with Indonesia becomes fragile. Particularly under the Abbott government, Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty was disrespected when Australia forcibly returned asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. In Indonesia, such action was seen as arrogant and destructive to the bilateral relationship.

Protecting victims of international crimes

Since Indonesia has no domestic legislation for refugee protection, it looks at forcibly displaced people primarily as victims of people-smuggling and trafficking. The Rohingya often employ middlemen who arrange the transport for them and also promise them work. Unable to pay the full amount requested before the journey, many Rohingya enter exploitative arrangements that often turn out even worse than anticipated. Some middlemen have held them for ransom on boats to press their relatives back home for more payments. The fact that the Rohingya are stateless makes their case a lot more complex as they are not just victims of trafficking and smuggling.

There are a number of conflicting views in the Indonesian government regarding the Rohingya and other asylum seekers who have come to Indonesia, and whether their handling should be guided primarily by human rights concerns or concerns for security. Some members of the Indonesian government share sentiments of Muslim solidarity and demand more pro-active support for the Rohingya in Indonesia and beyond. But others are more concerned about regional stability, which might suffer from the transnational crime syndicates that are perceived to benefit from the irregular movement of people and forced displacement.

Whether the Rohingya come as asylum seekers or as labour migrants, both use the same pathways and rely on the same internationally-operating criminal networks to facilitate their travel. The more people rely on these services, the more money these smugglers make and the more consolidated their networks become. A number of high-ranking Thai military officers and politicians are currently being questioned over their involvement in these smuggling networks.

Having signed and ratified the Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, Indonesia is committed to preventing people smuggling, trafficking and other transnational crimes. Indonesia has shown its serious attention to the problem by establishing a special desk for combatting the smuggling of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (P2MP2S) under the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs (Kemenko Polhukam). The desk purports to play a comprehensive role in coordinating between all the relevant institutions and ministries. Despite all the intense work that has been done since its establishment, the desk has not yet offered a strategy to improve Indonesia’s position as a transit country.

Never has a group of forced migrants in Indonesia seen so many donations and so much public support. The status of the Rohingya as a displaced Muslim minority has inspired great feelings of solidarity in Indonesia. These sentiments have led to a humanitarian approach, notwithstanding Australia’s bad example. However, this approach must be balanced against the need to prevent transnational crimes, such as trafficking in persons. Combatting transnational crime in the context of forced migration is a tough job.

Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti ( is a Senior Researcher in the Research Center for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (P2P-LIPI).