Posted By Sandya Institute On Thursday, 21 May 2020

Written by I Gusti Putu Narendra Syahputra & Lidya Sophiani, Research Volunteers of Sandya Institute for Peace & Human Rights

Since its outbreak in Wuhan, China, in January 2020, COVID-19  has claimed thousands of lives and caused significant socio-economic impacts. The change of the COVID-19 danger level from public global health crisis to a pandemic, which was decided by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, is a serious sign of a change in the characteristics of COVID-19 that is spreading rapidly and massively. In short, COVID-19 has the potential to attack anyone regardless of their religious background, occupation, race, age or skin color.

The COVID-19, which is transmitted through direct physical contact at very close proximity, makes refugee and asylum seekers communities in several countries in Asia, including Indonesia, very vulnerable to being infected with COVID-19. Although it has been supported by various scientific facts, in fact, the Indonesian government still ignores the safety of refugees and asylum seekers who are housed in temporary shelters scattered in three Indonesia major cities, Jakarta, Medan, and Makassar.

This article will highlight the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic experienced by civilian people and the real conditions and situations experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also look at the applicable solutions by the government and related institutions. 

After the World Health Organization (WHO) established COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, many countries issued public policies to break the chain of transmission, including through social and physical distancing, and lockdown. 

In its implementation, however, parties targeted by these policies can remain ambiguous and lead to a false understanding on the presence of foreigners, especially refugees and asylum seekers. This is the seed of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies in many parts of the world which often led to the marginalization of refugees and asylum seekers [1].

With the implementation of social distancing policies, the economic  and trade sectors such as manufacturing, tourism, aviation, retail, and Micro,Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), have experienced a significant decline in income. This forced employees to take unpaid leave, some even had to be fired by the company. The same thing is also felt by informal workers who rely on daily income, such as online motorcycle taxis, food and basic necessities vendors, street vendors, clothing sellers, and public transportation drivers [2].

Meanwhile, the fact that the virus has yet to be fully understood by epidemiologists is making it difficult to slow down the transmission and provide proper treatment for those  who have been infected. The rapid transmission resulted in an exponential number of patients, leading to an overcapacity of the healthcare system in some countries such as China and Italy. While this is a difficult time for most people, the situation has made refugees and asylum seekers one of the most vulnerable groups to COVID-19. 

Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Indonesia

During COVID-19 pandemic, refugees and asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable groups to be infected by the virus. Three things contributed to this fact: The high density of their shelters (1), the high density of refugees and asylum seekers living in temporary shelters, (2) the lack of adequate medical equipment and sanitation, such as masks, hand-sanitizers, soaps, and disinfectants (3), and the lack of legal umbrella to ensure their basic rights which denies many refugees and asylum seekers from receiving basic health care facilities (3) [3].

Research conducted by the US Central Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) shows that the elderly, meaning those aged 65 years and over, especially those with a history of heart diseases, lung diseases, and diabetes, are most vulnerable to COVID-19 [4]. In Indonesia, there are 13,657 refugees and asylum seekers from 45 different countries, scattered in Jakarta, Medan, and Makassar, more than 50% of refugees and asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq  [5]. Of the total number, as many as 28% are children, and 2% are elderly people of 65 years and older [6].

One of those ‘refugee crises’ in Indonesia happened in October 2018. Back then, the Immigration Detention Center in Kalideres, Jakarta had reached an overcapacity after sheltering more than 1,000 refugees. Consequently, some of the homeless refugees had to set up tents from tarpaulin on the sidewalk in front of the Detention Center, and in front of the UNHCR Indonesia office in Menara Ravindo, Kebon Sirih, Central Jakarta [7]. Although the Jakarta Administration has provided temporary shelters, basic facilities such as electricity and clean water in these shelters are very limited [8].

Similar conditions re-occurred in March-April 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia. Refugees and asylum seekers were forced to withstand the pandemic with minimum resources since the UNHCR has yet to clarify their status and resettlement plans. 

Jakarta, which is the nation's capital and the epicenter of COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia, currently accommodates around 7,000 refugees and asylum seekers from various countries who are living in Immigration Detention Houses (Rudenim) as well as boarding rooms and small apartments throughout the city. In Kalideres Temporary Shelters, West Jakarta, 250 refugees and asylum seekers are placed in narrow rooms and tents where there is no proper air circulation and lack of space. There can be more than three people per tent and too many people sleeping in the same room. Meanwhile, the Jakarta Social Service office and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), can only provide ginger and garlic as a way to boost the immune system of these refugees, and have staple foods delivered twice a week by Church World Services (CWS) volunteers [9].

In Medan, North Sumatra, Rohingya and Somali refugees and asylum seekers registered with the IOM system are placed in a small hotel in Medan Tuntungan area.  Refugees and asylum seekers must sleep in narrow rooms that are only equipped with fans, each room can be filled by three to four people [10]. To prevent COVID-19 transmission, IOM officials forbid refugees and asylum seekers from exiting the hotel, even in emergencies [11]. Looking at the conditions experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in Jakarta and Medan, it can be concluded that social and physical distancing in temporary shelters is difficult to implement, which increases the likelihood  of COVID-19 virus to spread among refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugees and asylum seekers' vulnerability to the virus is also caused by the lack of social assistance in the form of cash and essential items from the government and related international institutions, such as UNHCR and IOM [12]. This is happening in IOM's temporary shelter in Makassar, South Sulawesi, where the Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers are only given cash assistance of Rp. 700,000, without additional staples, such as rice, vegetables, and bread. With this money, one refugee can buy staples in the form of 10 kg of rice, vegetables, and bread for supplies for two months. During the pandemic, however, due to a drastic increase in the prices of basic commodities, the money was only enough to buy 20 kg of rice supplies for two months [13].

Looking at the conditions experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in three major cities in Indonesia, it can be concluded that with the lack of basic assistance, adequate health and sanitation facilities, limited access to information, and overcrowded shelters all contributed to their vulnerabilities to COVID-19 infection.

Indonesian UNHCR representatives have coordinated with the central government so that the refugee communities and asylum seekers are included among those prioritized to receive COVID-19 health screening services [14]. However, with the explosion of COVID-19 patients in hospitals, refugees and asylum seekers are at risk of neglect. Hence, solid cooperation and policy communication is required to ensure that prevention measures and medical treatments for COVID-19 positive patients are also accessible by refugees and asylum seekers.

Indonesian Government’s Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

There are various factors influencing the rate of COVID-19 transmission, ranging from a lack of public awareness, how to practice social distancing and stay at home, to technical matters like the low ratio between the number of doctors and ICU space per 1,000 population. For Indonesia, the ratio stands at 0.4% or half of the number of doctors and ICU rooms in other Southeast Asian countries with the same allocation of health budget each year, such as Vietnam and Thailand [15].

Through the Task Force for Response Acceleration on COVID-19 outbreak, which is chaired by the Head of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), the Indonesian government has issued a policy to limit physical interactions and social gatherings through small to large scale restrictions, including the Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB).

As stipulated by Government Policy (PP) No.21 of 2020, PSBB limits the movement of people from one particular province or district into and out from the “red zone” area that has been indicated as the epicenter of COVID-19 transmission. PSBB includes closing schools and offices, limiting the operational hours and the number of passengers in various modes of public transportation, restricting religious and cultural activities that includes mass gatherings, and sanctioning those who violate the implementation of PSBB [16].

To anticipate layoffs due to PSBB, the government has also issued a Pre-Employment Card as an effort to improve the expertise and quality of job seekers [17]. In addition to the Pre-Employment Card, the government also provides Direct Cash Assistance (BLT) of Rp. 600,000 per month, and food packages to those who are badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic [18].

The central government is also trying to meet the basic needs of refugees and asylum seekers needed during the pandemic. Through the coordination with the Health Ministry,  UNHCR, and IOM, the government is working to provide and distribute ventilators and other important medical devices to the refugee and asylum seeker communities registered in the UNHCR and IOM systems [19].

Moreover, as part of the Risk Communication & Community Engagement (RCCE) program, together with IOM, Provincial and District / City Health Offices established COVID-19 emergency response posts, conducted counseling and Focus Group Discussion (FGD) on national preventative health protocols and handling COVID-19, and provided disaster communication skills training for refugees and asylum seekers who volunteer for information dissemination at Immigration Detention Centers (Rudenim) in nine provinces across Indonesia [20].

Even so, despite the issuance of Presidential Regulation No.125 in 2016 signed by the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, the Indonesian government has not set definitive social welfare for refugees and asylum seekers. In Presidential Regulation No.125 of 2016, the government only asserts the obligation to provide temporary shelter and meeting basic needs, such as food, drinks, and adequate sanitation. It does not require provision of access to healthcare, education, and employment, which are also the main indicators of social welfare security. The absence of Indonesia from the list of countries who have ratified of the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 UN Protocol on the Status of Refugees makes Indonesia, in the context of international law, not bound by legal obligations to accept refugees and asylum seekers as citizens; which are the main conditions for a person to be able to obtain social welfare.

In essence, the Indonesian government has adopted a proper COVID-19 response plan that includes refugees and asylum seekers. However, in its implementation, it remains necessary to have solid and intensive communication and coordination between the central government, regional governments, and related international institutions, such as UNHCR and IOM, to ensure that the distribution of basic aid provided can be spread evenly and in accordance with what is needed by the refugees and asylum seekers to protect themselves from COVID-19.

International Law and Regulations on Refugees and Asylum Seekers 

In a crisis situation, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted  the issuance of a national health emergency policy, every nation state still has the obligation to meet the basic needs of the population within their borders, including marginalized groups, such as refugees and asylum seekers. Based on the minimum core,  proportionality and distributive justice law perspective, nation states have no rights to reduce or limit economic rights and access to social services, like health services. To ensure that the population can obtain these rights, the government can map-out the levels of people’s socio-economic needs, including socio-economic rights that can be obtained by refugees and asylum seekers, proportionally [21].

In the perspective of International Law, during crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community should continue to include refugees and asylum seekers within the list of prioritized recipients of social assistance, including the provision of staple food, temporary shelter, water sanitation clean, and adequate health services, as stated in various international legal instruments, one of which is article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - ICESCR).

ICESCR states that everyone has the right to work for their lives so that they can meet their basic needs, such as obtaining food, clothing, housing, the right to obtain public services, including adequate health facilities and in accordance with applicable international health standards, which guarantee the provision of health services and medical care to everyone who needs it [22].

International legal instruments that also regulate the status and basic rights of refugees and asylum seekers are the UN Convention on Refugee Status 1951 and the UN Protocol on Refugee Status 1967. Under Article 23, each nation state that signed and ratified the convention must provide basic needs and access to public services to everyone who falls into the category of refugees and asylum seekers, proportionally, in accordance with the basic needs of native citizens [23].

Although not all countries are bound by the obligations stated in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 UN Protocol. In accordance with what is stated in the ICESCR, everyone should have the right to access health services, especially in a pandemic emergency as it is today. The spread of the virus does not look at the differences in a person's citizenship status, therefore the response to the treatment carried out should be applied universally.

Conclusion and Recommendations

There are two solutions that can be applied by the government and related ministries / institutions. First, in collaboration with UNHCR and IOM, they can collect data, both from offline and online sources, on the number of people refugees and asylum seekers who have no access to basic necessities, especially healthcare. This is needed to support data synchronization and the addition of new data to verify the distribution of basic needs assistance and access to healthcare.

Second, the government can also work together with non-profit community organizations engaged in social services to minority groups. They can conduct collaborative program evaluations through independent policy research studies by providing integrated data on the real number of refugees and asylum seekers that have been officially registered, evaluate the work programs to improve the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers currently being carried out, and assess the effectiveness of program implementation comprehensively and transparently.

Additionally, the government, through the Ministry of Social Affairs and related institutions, can disseminate information related to COVID-19 covering its impacts and hazards, as well as the importance of taking precautions, with the help of community organizations and refugees who are fluent in English and Indonesian Language, as have been conducted by Sandya Institute.

Through good cooperation and support from various parties, refugees and asylum seekers can play an active role in preventing the spread of COVID-19. For example, in Medan, in collaboration with the Mapanbumi organization, as many as 1,000 refugees participated in the fabric mask production as an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 [24]. Involvement of refugee communities like this shows that they are capable and more than deserving to be empowered.

COVID-19 can infect all people regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, social status or class. Therefore, the response to it must also be a non-discriminative response based on fundamental human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic is a chance for the international community to showcase its humanitarian solidarity. By paying attention to the needs of minorities and marginalized groups such as refugees and asylum seekers, we can stand united and prevail through this difficult time.


[1] Nafees Ahmad, Refugee Rights and Health: The Impact of COVID-19 on Refugee Camps, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Accessed at April 5th, 2020,

[2]  Jun Suzuki, Indonesian informal workers lose work in coronavirus outbreak, Nikkei Asian Review, Accessed at March 21st, 2020, 

[3] Samuel Volkin, How are Refugees Affected by Covid-19?, Johns Hopkins University, Accessed at April 29th, 2020,

[4] U.S. Central Disease Control and Prevention, Older Adults, Accessed at April 7th, 2020,

[5] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR in Indonesia, UNHCR Indonesia, Accessed at April 27th, 2020,

[6] Ibid

[7] RBC, Miris Nasib Para Pencari Suaka di Trotoar Kalideres, Accessed at April 20th, 2020,

[8] Roomy Roosyana, Para pencari suaka belum kehilangan harapan pada Indonesia, Accessed at April 20th, 2020,

[9]  Aisyah Llewellyn & Sen Nguyen, Slow-motion genocide’: coronavirus fears grow among refugees in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand, South China Morning Post, Accessed at April 29th, 2020,

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12]  Antje Missbach, 2015, Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia, Singapore; ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, p.97, April 30th, 2020

[13]  JN Joniad, 'Impossible to self-isolate,' Refugees in Indonesia fear coronavirus outbreak,, Accessed at April 29th, 2020,

[14] Dian Septiari, UNHCR works to ensure no refugees left behind in COVID-19 crisis in Indonesia, The Jakarta Post, Accessed at April 5th, 2020,

[15] Jason Phua, dkk, 2020, Critical Care Bed Capacity in Asian Countries and Regions. Critical Care Medicine, 48(5), p.654-662, Accessed at April 20th, 2020,

[16] Jaringan Informasi & Dokumentasi Hukum, Peraturan Pemerintah No.21 tahun 2020 tentang Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar (PSBB) Dalam Rangka Percepatan Penanganan Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Sekretariat Kabinet Republik Indonesia, Accessed at April 7th, 2020, 

[17] Komite Cipta Kerja, 2020, Kartu Prakerja - Tentang Kami. Kementerian Koordinator Bidang Perekonomian Republik Indonesia, Accessed at April 20th, 2020,

[18] Syailendra Persada, 2020, Masyarakat Desa Terdampak Covid-19 Dapat BLT Rp 600 Ribu,, Accessed at April 20th, 2020,

[19]  Mitra Suryono, Alongside the Government of Indonesia, partner organizations and sister UN agencies, UNHCR ensures that refugees are not left behind in COVID-19 response, UNHCR Indonesia, Accessed at April 30th, 2020,

[20]  Press Room, IOM Ramps Up Response to Covid-19 Pandemic for Refugees in Indonesia, IOM UN Migration, Accessed at April 30th, 2020,

[21] David Bilchitz, 2014, Socio-economic rights, economic crisis, and legal doctrine, International Journal of Constitutional Law, 12 (3), p.710-739, Accessed at April 20th, 2020,

[22] United Nations Office of High Commissioner Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Accessed at April 6th, 2020,

[23]   United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, Accessed at April 8th, 2020,

[24] Mitra Suryono, Alongside the Government of Indonesia, partner organizations and sister UN agencies, UNHCR ensures that refugees are not left behind in COVID-19 response, UNHCR Indonesia, Accessed at April 30th, 2020,