Increasing concern over foreign terrorist fighters returning to Southeast Asia has prompted Indonesia to enhance immigration cooperation with ASEAN member countries. But regional cooperation must be preceded by significant internal improvement, particularly in regards to the integrity and capability of the country’s immigration apparatus.
Since coalition forces successfully pushed the so-called Islamic State (IS) to Mosul and launched Operation Conquest, leaders from various countries have expressed their concern over the potential consequences of fleeing IS foreign fighters. Indonesia — a country where a small collection of IS fighters have origins and where foreign fighters are often attracted to joining local resistances — must keep an eye on its border security.
Indonesia already has experience in this issue as its immigration and border security have been exploited in the past by Jamaah Islamiah (JI) fighters wanting to enter or leave the country. Indonesia’s problem with people movement seems to centre around a lack of integrity in the immigration apparatus as well as the sheer scale of its borderlands. With such challenges, can Indonesia protect its territory from the movement of foreign fighters?
In 2016, a member of Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) proposed to pull the moratorium on recruitment of immigration officers. The moratorium was previously implemented to decrease the state’s personnel expenditure, even though Indonesia suffers from a deficiency of immigration officers. Concern over Indonesia’s personnel numbers was raised by a member of parliament, Sufmi Dasco Ahmad, at a DPR commission on the issue. Ahmed stated that Indonesia has only 7000 immigration officers to guard the huge archipelago — fewer than those protecting the smaller landmasses of Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesia’s lack of personnel numbers is having tangible consequences on the ground, with vacant posts at crucial border areas such as East Nusa Tenggara, Papua and West and East Kalimantan.
Apart from quantity, Indonesian immigration is also suffering from a lack of quality. In addition to illegal crossings, legal checkpoints have proven to be a smooth way for foreign fighters to enter Indonesia. Official checkpoints are failing to detect false documents and tackle the movement of foreign fighters. For example, in 2015 three Uighur fighters who intended to join Santoso’s Eastern Indonesia Mujahidin Commandos successfully bluffed Malaysian and Indonesian immigration officers by using forged Turkish passports. They flew from Turkey to Malaysia, crossing the Malacca Strait to Riau and moved to different cities before being captured by Indonesian police on their way from Makassar to Poso, in Central Sulawesi.
In terms of the institutional quality of Indonesian immigration, integrity seems to be an ongoing issue. Bribery is a frequent practice. In March 2016, local police caught an immigration officer in Batam who unlawfully received 5000 Singapore dollars (approximately US$3500) from a detainee in exchange for letting them escape.
These integrity issues have also affected other Indonesian institutions. In various areas across Indonesia authorities have found refugees unlawfully possessing local identification such as identity cards or driving licenses. This situation is a result of venal local governance, a lack of supervision by immigration as well as local residents seeking to gain financial benefits. These unauthorised activities provide a golden opportunity for a returnee, a deportee or a foreign fighter to smoothly integrate into local society.
In September 2016, ASEAN member countries and Australia met for the 20th ASEAN Directors-General of Immigration Department and Heads of Consular Divisions of ASEAN Ministries of Foreign Affairs conference (DGICM). The 12th ASEAN Immigration Intelligence Forum (AIIF) was also included in the agenda. As host, Indonesia proposed the prevention of foreign terrorist movement between ASEAN member states as a principal issue for the forum.
Indonesia’s proposal was discussed and manifested into an ASEAN joint statement. The statement emphasised cooperation between members, especially relating to intelligence sharing and enhancing communication to explore practical ideas on countering foreign terrorist movement. But alongside discussions of regional cooperation, there was also concern regarding terrorist movement within the region and ensuring ASEAN’s non-intervention mandate is maintained.
While Indonesia has argued that the foreign terrorist fighter problem should be addressed by ASEAN countries collectively, such action must not supersede efforts towards improving internal institutions. Officer integrity is crucial and must be enforced as the foundation of any effective operation seeking to tackle immigration violations. In addition, the technical skills of those working within the immigration sector must be further developed. While capability improvements can be addressed through exchanges of knowledge between Indonesia and other countries, Indonesia’s integrity issues must be dealt with domestically.
As the frontline of border and immigration security, Indonesian immigration must also enhance cooperation with other institutions. Some progress has already been made on this front, with a number of immigration supervision teams being established in various regions. These teams are comprised of military personnel, police, intelligence, the office of the attorney, customs and other authorities, including local government. But the effectiveness of these teams is yet to be proven.
Satrio Dwicahyo is Research Associate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore