Australia’s other “offshore policy” – containing refugees in Indonesia through the International Organisation for Migration

This blog is based on the authors’ paper ‘Outsourcing control: the International Organization for Migration in Indonesia’ in the International Journal of Human Rights.

Australia’s offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have gained international notoriety. However, less focus has been paid to Australia’s other offshore policy: creating a “buffer zone” in Indonesia to stop refugees’ onward travel, particularly to Australia. The goal of the policy is to keep refugees stranded in Indonesia, with no other option but to return home.

Most of this work is done by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental organisation. While IOM has promoted itself as the UN Migration Agency, it does not have a human rights mandate and is not formally part of the UN system. In the words of a former chief of mission for IOM Indonesia, “IOM is not, strictly speaking, a humanitarian organization”.

Most of IOM’s work in Indonesia involves migration control. This includes expanding and servicing detention centres, returning refugees and asylum seekers to their home countries, strengthening Indonesia’s border controls, and implementing public information campaigns to dissuade people from taking boats to Australia to seek asylum. This includes broadcast advertising on television and radio, and warnings in newspapers and on billboards.

But in practical effect, this work might be termed “blue-washing” - using UN branding to present a humanitarian veneer while carrying out rights-violating activities on behalf of Western nations.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and does not provide any durable legal solutions for the estimated 14,000 refugees stranded there. Refugees have no right to work, limited education opportunities, and face detention and destitution.

In 2000, Australia, Indonesia, and IOM established the three-way Regional Cooperation Agreement (which has never been publicised). IOM describes the agreement as an “ongoing programme…to provide care and voluntary repatriation of intercepted irregular migrants” (as per IOM produced booklet produced in 2015, on file with authors). Under the Agreement, Indonesian police and immigration officials intercept and detain migrants “thought to be intent on travelling irregularly to Australia or New Zealand”. Indonesian authorities refer these asylum seekers to IOM for “case management and care” while in detention. If they wish to claim asylum, IOM then refers them on to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Australia’s funding of IOM

Australia’s annual global funding of IOM has increased from US$17 million in 2001 to $72 million in 2016. Of Australia’s global IOM funding, most goes to Indonesia. Australia has contributed $238 million to IOM Indonesia since 2001. IOM Indonesia has thus come to rely on Australia for more than 80% of its funding. While some of this funding can be described as “humanitarian”, over 90% of funding has focused on migration control.

Australia’s IOM funding can be compared with the money that Australia gives to UNHCR, as seen in this graph. In 2016, Australia gave as much to IOM in Indonesia alone as it gave to UNHCR globally.

Migrant Care Management

IOM Indonesia describes a number of its programs using a seemingly contradictory phrase “Migrant Care Management”. These projects aim to facilitate the “care and management” of what Australia calls “Potential Illegal Immigrants” intercepted on their way to Australia. They involve monitoring and funding detention centres, providing supplies to intercepted asylum seekers, and facilitating “Assisted Voluntary Returns”.

Australia’s funding of IOM has enabled Indonesia to detain asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants in conditions which violate their human rights. As Antje Missbach has argued, “without the very generous Australian funding channelled through IOM, it is unlikely that Indonesia would detain thousands of transit migrants”.

Through IOM, Australia funds the detention of over 4000 asylum seekers in detention centres and makeshift facilities. Australian money also contributes the 42 community housing facilities for asylum seekers in across Indonesia, which IOM presents as alternatives to detention.

Australia has also provided significant funding to IOM to refurbish and expand Indonesia’s two largest immigration detention facilities, and improve standards in detention. However, the conditions in detention remain harrowing. Detainees face violence, overcrowding, inadequate access to medical care, and insufficient nutrition, particularly for children.

Assisted Voluntary Returns

One of the most concerning aspects of IOM Indonesia’s operations is the Assisted Voluntary Return program. Under this program, IOM organises the removal of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants to their countries of origin by facilitating return travel and offering a $2000 financial inducement.

Australian funding has helped IOM return over 5000 migrants from Indonesia since the year 2000, according to documents released under FOI (PDF). IOM Indonesia returns most people to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. These are also the main nationalities of boat arrivals in Australia, indicating that IOM is doing Australia’s work by preventing those asylum seekers from arriving on Australian shores.

Detained refugees may accept offers of return to unsafe conditions, because of their precarious legal position, difficult living conditions and lack of knowledge about their right to seek asylum. This blurs the line between “voluntary” return and refoulement (returning refugees to harm).

Asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia have very few options, apart from returning to their countries of origin. While resettlement is open to those whom UNHCR finds to be refugees, this can take more than 15 years, with UNHCR saying that most refugees in Indonesia will never be resettled. Australia has refused to resettle refugees who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after June 2014, further reducing the resettlement places available.

Refugees in Indonesia are often confined to indefinite and arbitrary detention, may face restrictions on their movement, and may experience violence both in detention and in the community. As no other option except return exists, IOM Indonesia’s voluntary return program may constitute refoulement under international law.

Outsourcing and offshoring control

Australia’s funding of IOM highlights a pattern of Australia outsourcing its border controls to non-state actors and third countries, as also seen on Nauru and Manus Island. While Australia attempts to hide behind its funding of IOM, it still remains responsible for the harms that refugees face in Indonesia.

Instead of spending millions on controlling migration in Indonesia through IOM, Australia should be investing in refugee protection through UNHCR Jakarta, which is has no direct funding and faces a funding gap of $7.2 million.

Short biographies

Asher Hirsch is a Senior Policy Officer with the Refugee Council of Australia, the national umbrella bAsher Hirschody for refugees and the organisations and individuals who support them. His work involves research policy development and advocacy on national issues impacting refugee communities and people seeking asylum. Asher is also completing a PhD at Monash University in refugee and human rights law. His research investigates Australia's migration control activities in Southeast Asia, which aim to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Australian territory and seeking protection. He holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Human Rights Law, a Juris Doctor and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice.

Cameron Doig is a Melbourne-based student and writer. He is co-author of ‘Outsourcing Control: The International Organization for Migration in Indonesia', (2018) 22(5) International Journal of Human Rights 681-708.