Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Immigration Inefficiencies Hamper Better Aussie-Indonesia Relations

In a promising show of bipartisanship on the need to improve engagement with Indonesia, both sides of Australian politics last month put forward some exciting new initiatives to greatly boost the number of young Australians living, studying and working in Indonesia.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr pledged to dramatically increase the number of yearlong “work and holiday” visas for Australians to visit Indonesia from 100 to 1,000. This is in addition to the 10,000 Australians his government plans to send to study in Asia as part of its $37 million Asia-Bound Grant Program.

And as an Australian election looms, it is heartening to see that the opposition foreign spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, also announced a student mobility plan that could send “thousands” of Australians to Asia for study and internship opportunities, with a particular focus on Indonesia.

These initiatives should be commended for their vision and take on even more importance when you consider that in any given year there are only about 500 Australians studying in Indonesia — the vast majority of those on short course programs of less than a month in duration — compared to as many as 20,000 Indonesians studying in Australia.

Unfortunately, however, it looks like these proposals may prove better in theory than in practice. For any foreigner who has spent a significant amount of time in Indonesia it is clear where these initiatives might fall over: Right at the very first hurdle — immigration.

Most Indonesians probably don’t know that their country doesn’t offer foreigners student visas. Anyone wanting to study here for a significant amount of time, must navigate the complicated process of arranging a temporary resident permit, known as a Kitas, a process similar to obtaining a work visa. In fact, the process is so difficult that no individual university in Australia is able to help its exchange students obtain one. A special consortium of universities had to be set up in 1994 to facilitate the ordeal.

In all my years in Indonesia, I know of only one person to have arranged their work Kitas themselves, and I still don’t know how she did it. Most foreigners I know either had their employer organize a visa or engaged a visa agent or broker to get one. For those not lucky enough to have a benevolent employer or enough money for an agent, they usually work illegally on social-cultural visas.

The bilateral work and holiday visa program that Carr mentioned, in particular, has encountered significant problems since it was agreed to in 2009. While the uptake of the visas for Indonesians to come to Australia was more than 90 percent in 2011, a survey also taken that year found only three Australians had successfully obtained the reciprocal visa to Indonesia. Moreover, several of those surveyed reported having encountered misinformation and bureaucratic hurdles that prevented them from applying.

I must admit that despite my long engagement with the country, I am one of those people who has rarely arranged their own visa. Whether as a student, volunteer, intern or worker in Indonesia, it has usually — thankfully — been taken care of for me. So it was with disappointment (but not much surprise) that last year I experienced significant difficulties when applying for my own work and holiday visa.

I was initially told I would have to approach Indonesian Immigration in Jakarta myself to arrange it but, after traveling to Indonesia, this turned out to be incorrect.

Upon returning to Australia I applied again and this time found that, despite a two-week processing service standard agreed to with Australia, I had to spend more than two months waiting around for it.

Indonesians I talked to about my problem usually asked, “Why don’t you just pay someone?”

Although I am not a fan of institutionalized corruption, had I known whom to pay I would have happily slipped them a brown paper bag of money to make the process easier. But why should it have to be like that? Surely we should not have to engage in bribery to help build a better bilateral relationship?

In the end, I gave up because it was getting too costly to wait for a visa that may never come. I am not even sure how long it took to process in the end because nobody ever contacted me about it. It is a shame, too, because there is still much more of the country that I would like to see. Instead of Flores, Sulawesi and Maluku, however, I spent a few months traveling around Europe, Vietnam and Myanmar.

As far as I can see, for Australia’s bold new student mobility plan to succeed it would have to employ a veritable army of visa agents to process the thousands of new visas it will need. But is this really Australia’s problem to deal with alone, or should Indonesia come to the table to help make the process easier? Is a simple student visa really out of the question?

Unfortunately for Indonesia, its Kafkaesque immigration system is proving to be a major impediment to its potential to become an important destination for visitors not only from Australia but from around the world — be they tourists, volunteers, interns, skilled workers or foreign investors, and students.

Surely Indonesians do not want the very first experience visitors have of their country to be a nightmarish web of bureaucracy and red tape instead of its friendly, hospitable people or its beautiful and diverse landscapes? Erin McMahon is a Melbourne-based Australian journalist and educator who has spent several years living, studying and working in Indonesia.

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