The Push for Refugee Rights
In her last two decades of living in Indonesia, international development professional and humanitarian advocate Robin Bush has noticed a lack of awareness and discourse on the refugee crisis, until only recently.
Over the last year, she has seen increased coverage of the refugee plight in the Indonesia media, which exposed their dire living conditions of taking shelter on the streets or abandoned buildings and revealed xenophobic sentiments among some locals.
But what’s most encouraging is how more religious organisations are increasingly stepping into the fray, she said.
These span from Muslim organisations and large churches providing monetary donations, food, water and supplies to help struggling refugee communities, especially during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Although Indonesia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention on Refugees, the country has a long tradition of hosting refugees and people in need of international protection, said UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency on its website.
Today, there are some 13,500 refugees registered with the UNHCR office in Indonesia. By the end of March 2020, most refugees in Indonesia came from Afghanistan (56%), Somalia (10%) and Iraq (6%).
Bush says that the refugee community represents a huge resource pool that can enrich Indonesia’s society.
Many of them bring invaluable skills, language, knowledge of other cultures and have the ability to enrich the local economy, if they were allowed by the Indonesian government to participate productively, she said.
The power of religious groups in the refugee cause
She believes there is “tremendous potential” for Indonesia’s religious organisations to engage with this group, though the problem is there people are not aware of the urgent issues that refugees grapple with. These include not having access to health or education services, while at the same time not being allowed to work.
“Many citizens and religious leaders simply have no idea about the existence of refugees in Indonesia, the problems they face in our neighbourhood, that they are not allowed to work and that they’re completely dependent on assistance,” she said.
But change can happen, once that awareness is there, she says.
“Indonesia has these massive religious organisations associated with lots of giving, philanthropy and volunteerism. The whole machinery swings into action to channel resources to these needs,” she said.
Joining The Asia Foundation in 1998, Bush witnessed first-hand how religious organisations could be a powerful force for reform, democracy, political participation, women’s and human rights. At that time, Indonesia’s authoritarian president Suharto had just resigned, spurring sweeping changes and a period of transition called the Reformasi.
One key programme of the Foundation was the Civil Society Initiative Against Poverty, which worked with Muslim and Christian religious organisations to advocate their local government officials to allocate more of the state budget towards education and health services for the poor.
“Because these were religious leaders, they have a lot of power and clout in the community and officials listen to them when they speak,” said Bush, adding that the programme has seen tremendous success.
“It was about showing they could be participative citizens and engage in the political process in many different ways, which was also consistent with religious teachings,” she explained. “That encouraged them to further their religious mandate of justice, such as care for the vulnerable.”
With slashed UNHCR budgets in recent years, empowering religious organisations to do more for the refugee cause is also key in building a long-term, sustainable model, said Bush.
She cited the revolutionary example LazisMU, Muhammadiyah’s zakat agency,which had provided a grant to HELP for Refugees, using zakat funds from Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's largest reformist Muslim organisation.
“There are no other sources of funds for the refugees and they can't work so they're in a really impossible situation,” said Bush.
“In that context, if you have these religious organisations who have a mandate to provide for the poor, to care for the most vulnerable in society, and they happen to be at the same religious group that many of the refugees come from, it's an obvious alignment there.”
What happens when religion is politicized?
Yet it provokes the question often debated in humanitarian circles – is it inherently problematic when aiding refugees is largely linked to faith?
Criticisms have arisen over how the refugee issue has been religionized. Since late 2015, a mass exodus of Rohingya refugees - majority of whom are Muslim - fleeing persecution in Myanmar have ended up in the shores of Aceh. This has, in some cases, led to many non-Muslims shrugging off the responsibility since it is a “Muslim issue” while placing more onus on the Muslims to step up to play a bigger role in the crisis.
While this may be true in other parts of the world, where religious groups get involved for the sake of proselytization purposes, Bush said she hasn’t seen it happen to a large extent in Indonesia.
In fact, many religious groups are so “hyper-aware” of that dynamic that they often “bend over backwards and go to extremes to establish that this is not about a sectarian agenda,” said Bush.
So far, there has been a wave of support across the various religious groups. “As far as I can tell, I’m happy to see that there’s not been politicization along religious lines for their own agenda,” she said.
Humanitarian Forum Indonesia - a network of humanitarian and development organizations, founded by seven NGOs - has structures in place to agree to non-sectarian principles, Bush pointed out. It has committed to build an understanding across differences in background, ethnic race, tribe, religion and countries, among others.
Having such a forum or coalition with members of different faiths helps them “keep an eye on each other, provide a balance and learn about each other,” she said.
The future ahead
Bush credits her passion for humanitarian work to having spent her childhood years in Indonesia, where she learnt from a young age about class structures, the role of religion and ethnicity, and what individuals can do for society.
After witnessing the 2015 global crisis of thousands of refugees and migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea as they attempted to reach Europe, she was spurred to act. That was when she got involved with the refugee cause in a volunteer capacity, outside of her international development role.
Bush believes that civil society organisations – such as NGOs, religious organisations, universities, research institutes and activists – are “absolutely crucial” to facilitate policy change, especially when policymakers are only invested in the status quo.
Bush is optimistic that Indonesia’s thriving civil society space will create a strong push for more rights for refugees in future.
“It’s a robust civil society, with lots and lots of NGOs, religious organisations, a lot of donor support and Indonesians are very politically active as a people. They really get involved in their communities,” she said.
For now, Bush, an adjunct lecturer at Singapore Management University, has her hands full with drawing up a public policy course for her students, with a focus on refugees, among other policy issues. The course will provide students with an opportunity to learn more about how research and evidence is used in policy-making in Singapore.
Bush dreams of one day seeing more progressive policies for refugees in Indonesia, where she hopes policymakers may adopt some of the practices of their neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Thailand.
A major milestone is the access to education for refugee children in recent years, she said. Some child refugees are being admitted to public schools in places like Jakarta, Medan, and Makassar.
“It’s amazing. That’s the movement I would like to see and it would make all the difference,” said Bush.
Dr Robin Bush has spent 20 years of her career in the international development sector with organisations like RTI International in Indonesia and as a country representative at The Asia Foundation, where she specialised in developing programmes with religious groups. These programs included civil society, education, and anti-poverty programs implemented in collaboration with Muslim organisations. In her work with refugees, she is the co-founder of JAPPSI (Indonesian Advocacy Network for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) and a board member of a refugee learning centre called HELP for Refugees, which gives 120 children and youths in Jakarta access to informal education, basic health services and other learning opportunities.
Bush is an internationally recognized scholar of Indonesian politics and Islam in Indonesia. She received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Washington and her MA in International Studies from Ohio University. She has written numerous articles on Islam and democracy in Indonesia, and is the author of the book ‘Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power within Islam and Politics in Indonesia’. She currently teaches at the Singapore Management University as an adjunct faculty member.
Tags: refugees; Indonesia; religionization; humanitarianism; politics
Photo credits: Dr. Robin Bush