Indonesian presidential decree provides hope for refugees
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Indonesian presidential decree provides hope for refugees

IN one of his first acts as president, the United States’ Donald Trump issued a four-month moratorium on refugee resettlement in his country. The executive order signed last Friday also banned travel from citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations.

This announcement caused worldwide panic, including leaving hundreds of Rohingya refugees residing in Indonesia’s North Sumatra already slated for resettlement in the U.S. anxious and confused. The Indonesian government openly expressed its “deep regrets about the policy.”

In oddly fortuitous timing, however, Indonesia earlier this month introduced provisions for asylum seekers and refugees into its own migration laws for the first time in history. A presidential decree released by Joko “Jokowi” Widodo provides greater clarity regarding the status of an estimated 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees currently residing in Indonesia as they hope to be resettled elsewhere.

Until now, Indonesia’s legal system did not differentiate between ‘illegal aliens’ and asylum seekers, nor did it formally recognise refugees already processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“We appreciate that this new Perpres (presidential decree) confirms the definition of refugees contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and does not continue to label asylum seekers as illegal immigrants,” said Muhammad Hafiz, Executive Director Human Rights Working Group Indonesia (HRWG).

The new legislation also provides clarity on the respective responsibilities of governmental and non-governmental bodies in regards to refugee asylum seekers. According to Febi Yonesta, chair of the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection – SUAKA, “there is now an established coordination and a clear function by Government in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers, no matter the mode of their arrival.”

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Campaigns, Josef Benedict, responded to the announcement by saying the “presidential regulation on refugees [is] a positive step forward,” but that Indonesia “should ratify [the] refugee convention next.”

Yet the UNHCR and refugee advocates in Indonesia – as elsewhere in Southeast Asian countries that have not signed the convention, like Malaysia – have continually emphasised the need for work and education rights as the most pressing priority for thousands languishing in limbo. As UK lawmaker Alison Thewliss argued this month, “restricting the rights of asylum seekers to work is not only morally questionable, but doesn’t make economic sense.” In ASEAN, only the Philippines and Cambodia have ratified the Refugee Convention, yet neither have ever resettled refugees in significant numbers.

The Rohingya issue may well change the tide in favour of refugees in the region, however.

The release of Indonesia’s refugee legislation was partly stalled due to the number of Indonesian ministries involved in its implementation – foreign, health, security, law, police and immigration. Some advocates argue that the release of the presidential decree now – after being drafted back in 2010 – reflects that the situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma has rallied Indonesians and their government in support of refugees.

Thousands of asylum seekers remain detained in one of 13 rudenim or ‘detention houses’ across Indonesia. A report entitled Barely Living was released in late 2016 documenting the highly vulnerable situation of Rohingya refugees in Indonesia. Nevertheless, the Rohingya issue has galvanised Indonesian government and civil society in a way unlike other groups of people seeking asylum before them. Reports of abuse by the Burmese military provoked protests outside Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta last November. Indonesia’s foreign ministry recently offered formal guidance to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government on how to foster a peaceful, pluralistic democracy.

Elsewhere in ASEAN, Malaysia recently committed US$2.2 million to aid the Rohingya community in northern Burma, whilst announcing the forthcoming trial of work rights for refugees within its own borders. Even controversial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared last November that he would provide asylum to refugees until his country is “filled to the brim.”

SEE ALSO: Malaysia: ASEAN should lead Rohingya crisis resolution, current progress ‘rather slow’

2016 was the deadliest year yet for refugees, as Europe closed its borders to those fleeing conflict in Syria and across the Mediterranean.

Australia continues to pursue harsh border policies while the U.S. under Trump looks to resettle far fewer, if any, refugees. Even those to be resettled from Australia’s immigration detention centre on Nauru will be subject to Trump administration’s “extreme vetting.”

Asian nations may yet step up and play their part in providing asylum to some of the world’s most desperate people.


** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent