Guest post by Asher Hirsch, a Policy Officer with the Refugee Council of Australia, the national umbrella body for refugees and the organisations and individuals who support them. His work involves research, policy development, and advocacy on national issues impacting refugee communities. Asher is also completing a PhD at Monash University in refugee and human rights law. His PhD investigates Australia’s migration control activities in Southeast Asia, which aim to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Australian territory and seeking protection. Follow Asher on Twitter @ashhirsch.

Review of Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia by Antje Missbach (ISEAS Publishing, 2015)

Western nations around the world have increasingly externalised their borders, outsourcing migration control to neighbouring developing states. This practice has resulted in thousands of ‘stuck’ refugees and asylum seekers who are unable either to return home or to enter their intended destination to seek protection. Although there is a growing literature on the rise of external borders, there is much less empirical research on the impacts of these policies on those who are trapped in this indefinite limbo.

Antje Missbach’s Troubled Transit is based on many months of field research with transit migrants in Indonesia between 2010 and 2014. Missbach conducted over 180 interviews with asylum seekers, policy makers, law enforcement and government officials throughout West Java, Nusa Tengarra Timor and in the Riau Archipelago. Over the last 15 years, Australia has adopted a number of policies designed to deter asylum seekers travelling by boat from Indonesia in order to seek protection on Australian shores. While many of these policies are unilateral, such as boat turn backs, other cooperation activities have been adopted with the (wavering) support of the Indonesian government. These bilateral activities include anti-smuggling training for Indonesian law enforcement, the funding of detention and basic allowances for asylum seekers and refugees, and a range of anti-smuggling campaigns designed to deter both transit migrants and potential smugglers.

The ‘success’ of Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ policy has resulted in over 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. Those stranded have but few options―wait for years in limbo to be resettled by UNHCR, accept the IOM’s repatriation incentives, or live underground in Indonesia without legal rights to work, education, and healthcare and with the continual fear of arrest, detention, and deportation. As Missbach explores in chapter eight, it’s little wonder that those without fundamental rights turn to one of the few income-earning opportunities they know: organising people smuggling endeavours to Australia.

Missbach’s research provides one of the first in-depth explorations into the lives of those trapped in Indonesia as a result of Australia and Indonesia’s cooperation on migration control. Unlike most research on migrant experiences, Missbach focuses on the lives of transit migrants as they wait in limbo rather than once they’re given protection. This gives her unique insight into the difficulties those stuck in Indonesia face and also allows her to explore the lives of those who don’t find protection.

Missbach seamlessly blends discussions of big-picture policy and politics with very personal and intimate stories of the many refugees who are now forced to seek out a living in Indonesia. The first four chapters present the issue of transit migrants from the ‘bottom up,’ portraying the lives of transit migrants and the day-to-day impacts of Indonesian and Australian policies. Missbach introduces the reader to many personal stories of young asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Somalia, and other conflict zones and the impossible choices they are forced to make on a daily basis. Should they risk their life for freedom in Australia? Should they accept the incentives by the IOM to return home? Should they wait for the slight chance of resettlement?

These stories are interwoven with an analysis of the political decisions that have resulted in the ongoing destitution of these transit migrants. In chapter five, Missbach explores the role of the UNHCR and the IOM in these policies. She provides a strong critique of the intentions and activities of these international organisations as well as Australia’s involvement behind the scenes. This is especially evident in Missbach’s exploration of Australia’s funding of IOM and the influence it’s had in shaping the activities of the IOM.

The role of the Indonesian government is critiqued in chapter six, with Missbach exploring how this country of 250 million people has responded to the handful of transit migrants who have passed through in an attempt to reach Australia. As discussed in chapter seven, Australian foreign policy is never too far away, playing a significant role in the development of Indonesian policy, anti-smuggling laws, and law enforcement activities.

This extensively researched book is a must-read for those interested in learning more about the impacts of deterrent-based migration control policies. It will appeal to students and academics from a wide range of backgrounds, including anthropology, sociology, criminology, international relations and law. Further, it is essential reading for policy makers, NGOs and other advocates working on Australia’s refugee policies. Missbach shows that while the boats en route to Australia may have stopped, the policy has resulted in the torment of thousands of individuals stuck in limbo. The book is accessibly written, easy to follow, and well balanced. The mix of personal accounts interwoven with law, policy, and politics makes for an extremely interesting and engaging reading.

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