Dr Antje Missbach is the McKenzie Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne. This piece draws on data she collected during 11 months of fieldwork in Indonesia in 2012-13.
Indonesia's decision to suspend police cooperation aimed at keeping asylum seekers away from Australia has created fears that more asylum seekers might be arriving. Indonesia's chief of national police said yesterday that 'if anyone wants to head there (Australia); it is not part of our authority. There is no more cooperation (in the area).'
Before giving in to panic, however, it might be worth asking how effective Indonesian action to curb people smuggling (heavily funded and encouraged by Australia) has actually been.
Indonesian police have arrested more asylum seekers in the past year, but the increase in arrests more likely reflects an overall rise in the number of asylum seekers coming to Indonesia rather than greater police effectiveness. From January 2012 until September 2013, the Indonesian police arrested about 12,790 ‘irregular migrants’ (police statics do not differentiate between registered asylum seekers, recognised refugees and undocumented migrants) either while entering the country or, more often, while attempting to leave.
Furthermore, interception or arrest does not necessarily mean permanently obstructed mobility. It is more like an interruption.
Indonesian detention centres offer space for only 1300 people. In view of the overcrowding and the lack of alternative housing, Indonesia simply does not know what to do with the people it arrests. Indonesia is expanding its immigration detention capacities thanks to the generous Australian funding, but this won't suffice.
And it is not just a problem of numbers. Community housing projects for asylum seekers and refugees such as in Puncak, West Java, lasted only a few years because the local population opposed the presence of asylum seekers.
After arrests are made, the police hand over those arrested to immigration officers. Lacking appropriate accommodation, immigration officials usually have to rent hotels to host the intercepted people temporarily. Costs for food and accommodation in those hotels do not come cheap, but are mostly covered by the International Organisation of Migration. In West Java, where most interceptions occurred over the last two years, many hotel owners who previously rented out their hotels as makeshift detention centres are no longer willing to do so. Rioting asylum seekers have damaged their facilities and they were left with the damages without any compensation.
Due to the shortage of facilities, in some cases Indonesian authorities let irregular migrants walk off after having recorded their data. But even when ‘detained’ in schools or hotels, it is often easy to escape, not only because the numbers of security guards is generally insufficient but also because some guards prefer to earn a little extra by letting asylum seekers run away. It's a catch and release game, with each arrest offering another opportunity to further exploit the asylum seekers for bribes.
Yet the main task of the Indonesian anti-people-smuggling task force is not the interception of asylum seekers trying to leave Indonesia by boat but rather to catch the people smugglers and put an end to smuggling networks.
In 2012, the Indonesian police arrested 103 Indonesians and 6 foreigners suspected of people smuggling. But the Indonesians usually act only as drivers and boat crew, with the foreigners generally the recruiters and field coordinators, though not necessarily the main organisers. Every now and then, the police manage to nab a middleman or field-coordinator, but the absolute majority of arrested and prosecuted smugglers are only drivers and boat crew who know little or nothing of who set up the smuggling venture. The Indonesian police can arrest as many drivers and boat crews as they want, but it will not do the smuggling networks much harm.
The involvement of corrupt Indonesian law enforcement officers in people smuggling operations is a serious obstacle to ending the smuggling. Given that prices for boat voyages to Australia have increased quite substantially over the last decade, people smuggling has become a lucrative business that lures in underpaid law enforcement officers. In late November 2013, three maritime police officers were caught red-handed when escorting 106 Rohingya to West Java. They might stand trial or at least face disciplinary measures, but many other members of the police who facilitate people smuggling by, for example, acting as middlemen who arrange accommodation and transport and thereby earn pretty commissions, will never be held responsible.
Since 2009, Indonesia has set up a special task force to combat people smuggling. Of the 16 local branches planned, so far only 12 are operating, though even those face limitations in their daily work due to lack of funding. For example, the task force in Bandung (West Java) had to slow down its field operations long before Australia-Indonesia cooperation was suspended. Despite financial support from the AFP, the task force’s budget for 2013 had already been spent.
Despite affirmations by the head of the task force that it is still an urgent matter to Indonesia to make sure that its borders are properly guarded, it might just have to allow more asylum seekers to ‘slip through’. Even if the task force can still rely on some operational funding from the provincial police budget, it still has no place to house the arrested asylum seekers.
Photo by Flickr user kiekie_21.