Transmigrants and refugees

Down to Earth No. 44,February 2000

Transmigration, the government programme which resettles families from Java and Bali to lesser populated islands, has contributed to underlying tensions between communities in Maluku, recent scene of bloody clashes between Muslims and Christians. Now the government is preparing to send refugees from this and other conflicts back into the transmigration programme - a policy which may lead to yet more conflict in the future.

In December, Indonesia's new transmigration minister, Al Hilal Hamdi, announced that the government would start relocating refugees from conflict zones to new transmigration sites. He said there would be places for around 33,000 families on the new sites, which would be ready from March this year.

The announcement comes at a time when clashes are continuing in Maluku, and are being provoked on other islands - including the tourist island of Lombok in January. An estimated one and a half thousand people have died in the Maluku violence which has raged in the capital Ambon, on Halmahera island and elsewhere. Many refugees have fled to Southeast Sulawesi, where conditions on the overcrowded refugee camps have become intolerable. In Aceh, where the independence movement enjoys mass popular support, Indonesian troops have terrorised and burned local people out of their homes. Tens of thousands have ended up in overcrowded, unsanitary refugee camps.

The government says that 88,000 displaced families (around 422,000) had been recorded as of late November last year, but these figures are conservative. In Aceh alone, over 300,000 people have fled their homes since February l999, according to December figures produced by the Aceh NGO Coalition. A further 200,000 people from Maluku have fled or been displaced, according to press reports in January. This already exceeds the government figure, and does not include the tens of thousands of refugee families from East Timor still in Indonesia.

Transmigration is not the spark that ignites the tension in zones of 'horizontal conflict' like Maluku, where one community is pitched against another. This has more to do with the deliberate creation of chaos and political power struggles in Jakarta, as well as the impact of the economic crisis. But transmigration does cause long-term underlying tension between communities and provides fertile ground for the provocation of inter-community conflict. In Aceh and West Papua, and in East Timor, where the conflict has been 'vertical', transmigration has been regarded as another means of territorial control.


Conflict resolution

Bapak Raja Rahail, an indigenous community leader from the Kei islands in Maluku, visited Britain in January as a guest of Oxfam. He strongly believes that his own community has been able to resist a descent into communal violence largely because traditional conflict resolution mechanisms are still intact.

At last year's Congress of Indigenous peoples in Jakarta, laws passed in the 1970s which impose government control at village level and erode customary law were identified as a major target for change. (see DTE 41 Supplement and Special Issue on AMAN, October 1999)

In Maluku, some of the Muslim settler communities have been living alongside Christian communities for generations - even centuries - and have, for most of the time, managed to co-exist peacefully until now. However, many of the more recent settlers arrived under the government-sponsored transmigration programme and then later, as unofficial migrants joining family members on transmigration sites. This mass in-migration has happened within the past three decades. From 1969 to 1997 around 122,000 families (611,000 people) were brought into Maluku and West Papua under the official programme alone. The figure for West Kalimantan - scene of violence between Madurese, Dayaks and Malays in 1997 and 1999 - was almost as high: 118,500 families (over half a million people) were resettled.

In recent years, there has also been a shift in migrant population numbers in eastern Indonesia from rural areas to the towns, which may be explained in part by the scaling down of transmigration in the last decade and by the failure of transmigration sites to provide a sustainable living for expanding settler families.


Transmigration ministry downgraded

The refugees resettlement programme will be conducted by a new government creation - the People's Mobility and Population Board (BAKMP). The board is to take over operational matters from the ministry of transmigration, which has been downgraded to a non-portfolio ministerial office. The board will employ most of the transmigration ministry's 17,000 former employees, leaving 500 at the ministry. Whether the new board will do things differently from its predecessors remains to be seen, but significant change is unlikely unless fundamental questions about the purpose, usefulness and impacts of the programme are asked.

(Source: Jakarta Post 17/dec/99)

Vicious circle

The concern is that re-introducing the refugees back into the transmigration system will only stoke the fires of future conflict and recycle the current problems. Especially when new resettlement sites are in old areas of conflict. According to transmigration minister Al Hilal, new transmigration sites are being developed in Maluku, West Kalimantan, and Aceh - all areas from which refugees have fled. Other sites are under preparation in Southeast Sulawesi (where many of the Maluku refugees have ended up) East Nusa Tenggara (the administrative region which includes Indonesian West Timor and islands to the west), and Madura (the island from which one party in the West Kalimantan ethnic conflicts originates).

More transmigration is not the answer for these refugees because it leads to more ethnic and religious conflict - the very problems they have fled. Instead, in the short term, efforts (including international relief) need to be directed toward the the refugee camps, where poor conditions create breeding ground for TB, dysentery and other diseases. Beyond that, the proper resolution of conflict in areas of unrest must be the top priority so that the refugees can go home.


East Timor's refugees

Al Hilal says that almost of half of the refugee families come from East Timor and "not all" of these "are willing to join the resettlement programme." In other words a large number of refugees are East Timorese who want to return home, but have not yet been able to.

The flow of refugees from East Timor started well before last year's independence ballot, as non-Timorese families started leaving the country in late 1998 in anticipation of violence. It was then too, that the official transmigration programme to East Timor was suspended. Following the August referendum, the steady flow became a flood as tens of thousands of East Timorese and non-Timorese families fled the violence or were forcibly rounded up and trucked out by the Indonesian army and army-backed militias.

According to UN figures in December, 117,000 out of 260,000 refugees from East Timor had returned. A January report by Oxfam says that 129,259 have now returned to East Timor, with another 100,000 still in West Timor camps. Of these only half were expected to finally resettle in East Timor. The Indonesian government says that those in West Timor camps are the first priority, followed by those in Makassar (South Sulawesi), Surabaya (East Java), Denpasar (Bali) and Jakarta. It denies that any refugees were forced out of East Timor or were forced to resettle in Indonesian provinces.

(Source: Jakarta Post 17/Dec/99; Letter from Indonesian Embassy to T. Maguire and D. Thorpe, 15/Nov/99; Guardian 11/Jan/99; Laporan Akhir Tahuan, Koalisi NGO HAM Aceh, 30/Dec/99. Oxfam International, East Timor Emergency Programme Sitrep 16, 15/ Jan/2000.
Transmigration figures from Transmigration in Indonesia, Ministry of Transmigration and Forest Squatter Resettlement, 1998.)