Friday, 24 September 2010

Immigration is a Four Letter Word

It undoubtedly is to every expatriate worker I've ever met in Indonesia, the overwhelming majority of whom are regular people whose only ambitions are to enjoy the experience of living in a foreign country and earn an honest salary. Some go home after a year, but many stay for much longer, marry Indonesian citizens and persevere in the face of a system that has been designed to ensnare people with red tape in one way or another. 

I am a long time resident of this country, indeed I am half-Indonesian, making my son three-quarters Indonesian, however, while these factors would seem like normal claims to automatic acceptance by a country's government in a reasonable world, the reality of our surroundings is quite different. My son is eligible for dual citizenship until he is aged eighteen after which point he must decide between East and West, and as far as I can tell, I'm eligible for eternal visa renewals. While Alex's dual citizenship papers are pending, he must also get renewals. The convolution of the way things have been set up means that companies - like my own - who are charged with sorting out papers for their employees ,outsource the work to third-party agents who have experience dealing with such matters, and presumably know how much grease to apply to which wheels.

One of V.S. Naipaul's travel books about India, An Area of Darkness, includes an unforgettable passage describing his efforts to retrieve some spirits which had been confiscated by customs and excise. I got the distinct impression that he went through with the exercise - which were enormously distressing - to find material for his book, either that or he is extremely fond of his drink. Not having the same gift for illustrative prose as Mr Naipaul, I won't go into all the details of my very recent travails with the Indonesian Immigrasi. While there has been less sweat and tears involved so far, what's at stake for me isn't a couple of bottles of hard stuff (although I felt like some during the immediate aftermath) but rather being able to continue living in the country I've called home for most of my adult life. In my case you could say the immigration were in fact playing by the rules, but the rules which they themselves created are so byzantine and, at times, utterly nonsensical, one hardly feels like vindicating them of any blame. 

My father, himself no stranger to the perils of the abovementioned bureaucracy,  has long argued that the best thing to do would be to open borders and allow people to move from one country to another as they pleased, as was the case as recently as the last century for much of the world. In principle, I believe this solution, as Utopian as it may seem, would solve a lot of problems. However, modern day forms of transportation and communication are space aged when compared to the equivalents used by our ancestors of the early 1900s. Nowadays the internet has made the world an increasingly transparent place to live, and long-haul air-travel is available to all but the poorest of the poor. Without the usual demands placed on visitors to have a reasonable purpose for an extended stay in a country, a likely eventuality is great armies of the downtrodden fleeing areas of widespread hardship to turn up on the doorsteps of perhaps...Costa Rica? I can also actively imagine a world without frontiers quickly making the members of the British National Party appear to be heroes in their midst, whose warnings should have been heeded long ago. As despite my own disinclination to live there, the allures of the UK for those hitherto residing in poorly governed states are still many and varied. On the same note, Singapore would probably just collapse into the sea under the weight of all the soul-weary dissidents of nations nearby controlled by malignant despots. 

But I digress, because this is not my lot. 

When not faced with the throes of immigration (at least once a year), I live a reasonably comfortable, lower middle-class existence in Indonesia. The weather and the people agree with me as do many other aspects of my life here. And I feel that I can tolerate other bureaucratic machines as being part and parcel of modern life. All the bits of paper that we must keep safely around the house to prove this, that, or the other. The endless forms that must be filled out, which often include a telephone number or an address being given to an office who can't feasibly have any good use for it. But the madness imposed when it comes to my simply being here confound me. I have a job with a respectable organization, and it is one that very few Indonesian citizens are able to do. I don't have a criminal record nor do I have any intention of starting one. I have already mentioned our ethnicity, but it seems worth reiterating: I am half-Indonesian and my son is three-quarters Indonesian. I have lived in Indonesian continuously for the last ten years, he has never lived anywhere else. Why must I jump through hoops once a year, with the constant fear of falling into a fire? Why can't it be a simple matter of filling in some forms and paying a listed fee?

Indonesia's revenue offices recently went through a great deal of reform, where they wisely decided to forgive all prior tax evasions, and start afresh (a policy popularized by Nelson Mandela, I believe). Despite the odd national scandal involving their employees since the start of their reforms, I believe they have a fair chance of ultimately gaining a full commitment from the public. Why? Because their design and implementation are based on commonsense. The process is fairly transparent, and great pains have been taken by officials with a socialization programme, which has included presentations to employees at private sector companies. Most people concerned know what to do, and how to do it. The same cannot be said of the immigration department at all. In fact, most people I know are divided as to even what type of visa they should be in possession of, and very few expats know how to get any kind of visa, instead relying on the previously mentioned intermediaries to get the job done. Much of the time, we have to go an Indonesian embassy in another country to get our visas. This means we have to visit Indonesian immigration officials in other countries so that we may continue residing in Indonesia itself, which I'm sure most people will agree is patently ridiculous.

As tax officials have been saying in their public service ads aimed at tax evaders: Apa kata dunia? or loosely translated: What would the rest of the world say?

1 comment:

  1. As the father in question, I too, as is suggested, could write at
    length on the absurdities and iniquities of the “immigration” regimes
    prevailing in Indonesia and elsewhere, but I have only one simple
    point to make, which is that this is looking at the subject the wrong
    way round.

    What is at issue is LIBERTY. Not only the travails of the many
    different groups who get entangled by any particular country's
    legislation and malfunctioning administration, but everybody,
    everywhere. I would like to be a free man, not just a free Scotsman,
    Briton, European, or Indonesian resident. Liberty is the most basic of
    human rights, and the most basic form of liberty is freedom of

    Long-term hope is expressed in the verses of “Auld Lang Syne”, by
    Burns. They are universally known and translated into many languages,
    including (I am told) Indonesian and Javanese. In the original they

    It's coming yet, for a' that,
    That man to man, the world o'er
    Shall brothers be, for a' that.

    I must hasten to add, that by the linguistic conventions of Burns's
    time, “man” referred to humankind, and “brothers”, in this connection,
    undoubtedly included sisters.

    From this point of view, it is a relatively trifling matter that you
    are, say, a European minding his own business in Asia, or vice versa,
    confronted by ridiculous and oppressive bureaucracy. Far too little
    attention is paid to more serious phenomena, which are causing what is
    really murder, on a large scale. One news item, which has not had the
    attention it deserves, is that the morgues of Arizona were full to
    capacity this last summer, because it was an unusually hot one, and
    the deserts were littered with the corpses of would be “illegal
    immigrants”. And many more die at sea each year between Senegal or
    Morocco and Spain, Libya and Italy, Ethiopia or Eritrea and Yemen, as
    well as relatively small numbers between Cuba or Haiti and the USA, or
    trying to reach Australia via Indonesia.

    Singapore is a curious case. It wants to increase its population, but
    evidently not by allowing free entry to (poor) Indonesians. The more
    general case is typified, albeit in an extreme form, by the USA, where
    the so-called “nativists” want to curtail, eliminate, or even reverse
    immigration, from Africa and Latin America. The great bulk of the
    country's inhabitants are, of course, descended from recent immigrants
    (plus the slaves who were not included in the “all men are equal”
    declaration). It scarcely needs saying that one factor that causes
    trouble is racism and colour prejudice, against which all thinking
    people must resolutely set themselves. And now, every opportunity is
    taken to stir up the religious question, which similarly is just not
    right as a basis for political action. Liberty must include freedom to
    practice different religions.

    As to the practicalities, it is most unlikely that change will come
    rapidly, and that there will be a stampede from the poor countries to
    the rich ones. You could say that even if it did happen, why not, if
    all people really have rights? But in any case, it has happened to
    some extent already, in such examples as the very large numbers of
    Algerians now living, however unhappily, in France, “Latinos” in the
    USA, or on a smaller scale Poles (legal and unstoppable within the EU)
    in western Europe. Nobody seems all that much the worse for it, while
    many have benefited, and it will all sort itself out with the passage
    of time, under the constraints of the economic realities.