Indonesia Needs to Be Part of the Refugee Conversation

Musa*, with his gap-toothed grin and hand-me-down faded blue Oakland Zoo Camp t-shirt, doesn’t care one whit about a bunch of adults getting together to talk about “the causes of international flows of people and their complex inter-relations with development, armed conflict and environmental changes.” Musa only wants to know when he is going to be picked as goose in a lively game of duck-duck-goose.

Meanwhile, government leaders, the media, and think tanks, are going back and forth about an ongoing global crisis of people on the run from war, persecution, and climate change in their homelands. The crisis isn’t going away and Indonesia has a great opportunity to become a leader on the issue, while bolstering its reputation as a place of humanitarian understanding.

By signing the Convention of Refugee Rights and actively supporting refugees, Indonesia has the opportunity to invest a little and see a high return on investment — gaining the respect of the global community, the thanks of truly vulnerable people in need, high-performing new residents in some cases, and hopefully a seat at President Barack Obama’s refugee summit in September.

While Musa, his family, and 14.000 refugees sit in limbo in Indonesia, President Obama and the United Nations will host the September summit of high-level leaders from around the world in New York on Sept. 19. Indonesia should be there, and has recent experience to make a worthy contribution.

In 1975, Indonesia received tens of thousands of Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese who fled their homes because they had supported U.S.-led invasions and feared retaliation. These refugees ended up staying in Indonesia for 20 years or more. Their assimilation was not always easy, and they “tested Indonesia’s patience seriously,” as scholar Antje Missbach says. But Indonesia took them in all the same, and was praised accordingly by the world’s human rights community. Indonesia now has a chance to lead the way again, and enhance its global stature.

Whether Indonesia will make this commitment in time to be invited to the summit is an open question. Indonesia is perhaps best described as “on the fence” about aiding displaced people at the moment. Officially, the government does not deport asylum seekers but also does not provide active support for them.

Despite the growing number of displaced people now living in Jakarta, growing from 500 to 14,000 in less than a decade, global attention has largely been focused elsewhere. Turkey is trying to keep pace with 2.5 million refugees from Syria alone, and Jordan, which has a population of less than 6.5 million people, is currently home to 630,000 refugees, again from Syria.

Indonesia’s comparatively small numbers provides a tremendous opportunity. There are opportunities to serve and integrate people in a way that other countries, overwhelmed by sheer numbers and limited resources, cannot.

Take Musa’s father, for example. If the government allowed Musa’s father to work, he would gladly do so, contributing to the local economy. He would love to earn money through his own hard labor cleaning the streets or washing cars, rather than waiting for meager handouts, which he may or may not receive. Another parent, Maryam, has a master’s degree in civil engineering and a specialty in transportation. She is desperate to work but also is unable to given her refugee status, which prevents her from working. Yet she her skills could be invaluable in Indonesia, a country that doesn’t have enough trained engineers and whose capital, Jakarta, is routinely stalled by traffic.

To remedy this, Indonesia could enable refugees to work — a policy Jordan recently enacted. There are also abundant opportunities for vocational programs to train individuals to become professionals in fields of agriculture and food sciences, computer sciences, transportation, ship building, engineering, and manufacturing, all areas requiring wider skill sets to boost the Indonesian economy, according to a 2015 report by OECD and the Asian Development Bank. Creating those opportunities would benefit Indonesia as much as the refugees. Both skilled and unskilled workers boost local economies by having incomes that allow them to become both consumers and producers.

In addition to gainful employment, education is vital to the development of every displaced child. It is the goal of the UN to integrate children into host country schools, and Indonesia can advance that goal as well, while helping alleviate negative ripple effects in the community. With thousands of children and adults waiting for help, many having experienced chronic or recent trauma, health concerns from mental illness to substance abuse, from domestic violence to sickness from crowded living spaces, can spread.

So far, Musa has fortunately stayed healthy despite his family’s hard circumstances, including that his younger brother is a special needs child who suffers mental and physical challenges. Musa and his sisters mostly want to go to school every day to learn and make friends. His parents want to do something other than wait.

A few key steps by Indonesia’s government could help make that happen, and along the way, Indonesia could once again help show the world how to make room for even the most unexpected guests.

*All names changed to maintain confidentiality. Special thanks to Amb. Robert Blake and Mrs. Sofia Blake for inputs into the ideas put forth in this article, and to Hugh Biggar for edits. All opinions expressed reflect only those of the author. UN Photo by Rick Bajornas.