Refugee Council of Australia
Parliament House, Canberra

Submission to the inquiry into Australian aid strategic effectiveness

Increasing strategic aid to vulnerable populations in Indonesia


The number of refugees and people seeking asylum in Indonesia has continued to rise, increasing from 11,186 in 2014 to 14,405 in 2016. 25% of refugees are children, with 404 arriving alone or separated from their families. The largest groups of refugees in Indonesia are from Afghanistan, Myanmar (Rohingya) and Somalia, with limited prospects of returning to their countries of origin in safety in the foreseeable future.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, and is not under any obligation to provide ongoing protection to refugees and people seeking asylum. It continues to emphasise its role as a country of transit. At the same time, a positive recent development was the signing of a Presidential Decree on 31 December 2016, which upheld the international legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and paved the way for a framework for refugee management among governmental bodies. While these are encouraging high-level changes, there are many legal, economic and social problems that persist for refugees in their everyday lives.

People seeking asylum and refugees in Indonesia are denied work permits, and have restricted or no access to public services such as education or healthcare. Very few individuals receive financial support through UNHCR (298 people out of a population of 14,405 in 2016), while others survive by drawing on whatever resources they can find—including through the generosity of local people—and many are forced to live in homelessness and destitution.

Around a third of the population of concern to UNHCR in Indonesia are living in unsanitary and over-crowded detention centres. Many of the inmates have been detained for four or more years, and have reported instances of physical abuse, including electric shocks, floggings and beatings.

Further, refugees who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July 2014 have been denied resettlement in Australia. While those registered prior to this date have continued to be considered for resettlement, the Australian Government has also decreased the number of available places. From 2014-2015, Australia accepted 450 refugees for resettlement, compared to 600 the year before. In 2016, across all resettlement countries, just 636 refugees living in Indonesia were accepted by third countries. The effects of these policies have been amplified by the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis, and the cuts to the United States resettlement program.

The lack of opportunity for resettlement essentially leaves refugees with two options: to remain living in Indonesia under the precarious circumstances described above, or to return home. In many cases, these fail to offer sustainable and long-term pathways for refugees to rebuild stable lives.

Australian policies and programs are notably implicated in the creation of this situation. There is significant potential to reconsider Australian aid to Indonesia in ways that are both strategic and effective, and focused on principles of protection and human security.

For instance, funding available to UNHCR in Indonesia to implement protection strategies is dwarfed by Australian government (aid) funding to IOM to deter refugees from attempting to seek asylum in Australia. As of March 2018, UNHCR Indonesia had received no direct funding and faced a funding gap of USD $7.2 million, namely its entire budget. Conversely, Australia’s annual global funding of IOM has increased from USD $17 million in 2001 to $72 million in 2016. Most of this goes to Indonesia for migration control. If this funding was reallocated, this is likely to enhance Australia’s credibility in regional discussions about refugee protection.

Untapped innovators: Aid and Australia’s diaspora communities

The assets and capabilities of diaspora communities in Australia have hitherto been largely ignored in Australia’s foreign policy and international engagement, including in the planning, implementation and evaluation of Australia’s overseas aid program. (Diaspora communities refer to groups of people who maintain active connections to their countries of origin or refuge.) This is despite increasing evidence that diaspora communities in Australia are actively engaged in peacebuilding, development and humanitarian responses in many parts of the world.

These communities have achieved some significant results, such as building schools and hospitals, improving local economies through remittances and investment, raising money for disaster relief, and promoting respect for human rights. However, their work has remained largely invisible. Moreover, diaspora communities in Australia are often able to respond promptly at times of crisis, and are often the first to send resources to affected populations and provide important lifelines to those in situations of protracted displacement. Refugee diasporas are uniquely equipped to effect change, drawing on their valuable and in-depth knowledge of local contexts and links with people on the ground.

Whilst the important contribution of diasporas in situations of forced displacement is gaining recognition internationally, there is much that could be done by Australia to engage with and support diaspora initiatives.

Recognising the role of diasporas can be achieved by enabling an environment for diaspora-led development, peace-building and humanitarian responses. This may involve close examination at policies that inhibit constructive international engagements of diasporas. For instance, Australia anti-terrorism laws disable transnational flows of money to places and people where there are perceived security threats. At the same time, this disables cross-border flows of money to places and people in desperate need of help, and where individual and collective remittances from people in Australia represent an extremely effective form of humanitarian assistance. By seeing diasporic engagements primarily through a lens of risk (security threats), the significant potential for protective and positive engagements are undermined.

The Australian Government would do well to consider the potential of diaspora resources, capabilities and networks in enhancing its aid efforts, including through innovation and cooperation. This may be achieved through building government and NGO capabilities and opportunities to engage with diasporas, as well as supporting diaspora initiatives directly and amplifying diaspora functions through the establishment of a program modelled on the Danish Refugee Council’s Diaspora Programme.

The establishment of the Diaspora Learning Network (DLN) in 2016 is a welcome first step in the Australian Government investing in diaspora innovation, and could be built further upon with an ongoing commitment of funding.

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