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Indonesia as a Transit Country for Refugees: Summary


For thousands of years, the waters and the islands in the Indonesian archipelago have always been a place of trades for all sorts of cultures. From Indian trading empires that set the Hinduism and Buddhism cultural legacies found throughout the nation, the Chinese with their food, cultural trades and wealth, the Arab traders with the religion, and spice monopolisation, and the eventual European colonisations that eventually united the different fragments of the various cultural and languages as a powerful corporation state prior to Independence.


Today, Indonesia is the 3rd largest democracy in the world, 4th largest population in the world, the world’s largest (nominally) Muslim population in the world, the second most linguistically diverse population in the world, the second-largest biodiversity for Flora and Fauna after Brazil, and the largest nation in terms of its economic, geographic, and yield of influence in South-East Asia. It is not surprising that Indonesia becomes a place of transit for various legal and illegal trades due to its geographic location, including for people seeking asylum bound for Australia and New Zealand to a lesser extent. 

The historic precedence of Indonesia’s role as a transit hub for Australia & New Zealand bound refugees


Indonesia has become a place of transit bound for Australia (and New Zealand) for displaced people that picked up during the 1990s. Although the numbers are very small, about around 14000 registered UNHCR recognised refugees in Indonesia compared to neighbouring Malaysia of around 150000 registered UNHCR recognised refugees. This is not regarded as an issue at all by the Indonesian government.


Neither states are a signatory to the UN Convention of refugee rights in 1951. Australia (and New Zealand) is one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region that has signed the convention. The only reason that the refugees are in Indonesia is that they are Australia bound, and are in a more desperate and dire situation. Compared to their friends in Malaysia, the living conditions in Indonesia are worst as refugees due to their lack of civil liberties in the country.


Refugees in Indonesia does not have any access to employment, education, public state services, or any civil rights in the country. However, since December 2016, Indonesia has formally acknowledged the presence of refugees and asylum seekers under the Presidential Decree. For the first time in Indonesia's history, the lexicon for refugees, asylum seekers, and the recognition of their presence entered into Indonesia's constitution. 

Australia’s and Indonesia’s Bilateral Cooperation towards Asylum Seekers & Refugees

The Australian government spends an exorbitant amount of money at defending its deterrence policies at all costs. Including locking up people in Manus Island, Nauru, and they have also invested a significant amount of money in keeping refugees at bay in Indonesia.





And in fact, the people of the Indonesian archipelago have recorded histories of trade and exchange with the Australian continent since the 18th century!

The relationship between Makassarese and Yolnu people of the Arnhem Land




about 1700: Beginning of trade links between Aboriginal people of northern Australia and Makasar from Sulawesi.


From at least 1700 until 1907, hundreds of fishermen sailed each year from Makassar on the island of Sulawesi (now Indonesia) to the Arnhem Land coast, an area they called Marege. Makasar traded with Aboriginal people for trepang(sea cucumber), which they boiled down, dried on their boats and traded with China where it is still used for food and medicine.

The Makasar did not settle in Arnhem Land but they did have an influence on the Yolŋu people’s society and ritual.

... we learned that they were prows from Macassar, and the six Malay commanders shortly afterwards came on board in a canoe. It happened fortunately that my cook was a Malay, and through his means I was able to communicate with them.

The fishermen arrived each December and camped along the Arnhem Land coast, catching, boiling and drying trepang. They met, traded and worked with local Aboriginal people.

The months that the Makasar spent harvesting in the coastal waters of northern Australia were busy ones. Fishermen speared the trepang from their praus (boats) or dived down to spike them with weighted harpoons.


Onshore, trepangs were gutted and boiled in seawater in iron cauldrons, then buried in hot sand to cool slowly. After some time, they were dug up and their chalky skin washed away with saltwater. Finally, the trepang were dried in the sun or smoked over a slow fire in temporary huts made of bamboo and mats.

Then, each April, as the monsoon winds began to blow, the fishermen departed, returning to Makassar with the holds of their boats holds carrying trepang to be traded north to China.

Influence on Yolŋu society and ritual

The Makasar did not settle in Arnhem Land but they did have an influence on Yolŋu society and ritual. They introduced calico, tobacco and smoking pipes, and words that are still in use today, such as rupia (money).


Most importantly they introduced an item of technology that transformed Yolŋu life – metal. Metal blades, knives and axes made everyday practices easier for Yolŋu, from cutting food to making large dugout canoes and complex wooden sculptures.

Trade with China

A dried trepang specimen collected in the 1960s. The edible sea cucumbers are usually 10 to 50 centimeters long. Photo: George Serras.

In China, trepang was considered a culinary delight and an aphrodisiac. By the mid-19th century, the fleet from Makassar that visited Arnhem Land each year was supplying about 900 tons of trepang – about one-third of the Chinese demand. By the end of the 19th century, visits from Makasar to northern Australia to gather trepang were declining.

After 1901, the newly formed Australian Government banned trepangers from Makassar in order to protect Australia’s ‘territorial integrity’ and to encourage a local trepang industry. In 1907, the last prau from Makassar visited Arnhem Land.




Yet today, Makassar is now one of the relatively lesser-known cities for a hold out of refugees in Indonesia!

Further Reading:

Legal precedence of the legal challenges for refugee resettlement from Indonesia (DIFFICULT JOURNEYS: ACCESSING REFUGEE PROTECTION IN INDONESIA) 


Article of IOM’s issue in refugee management in Indonesia


Asher Hirsch: Academic Opinion


Dr. Antje Missbach: People Smuggler not out of Indonesia 

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