COMMENTARY: Who’s Responsible for Indonesian Diasporas in the southern Philippines during this pandemic?

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PERTH, Australia (MindaNews / 16 May) — Since the 15th century, the Indonesian community has been residing in small islands bordering the Celebes Sea, namely Balut and Sarangani Islands. Most of them came from Sangihe and Talaud Islands and are known as Sangirs or Sangils. Many were considered traders or fishermen who traditionally engaged in cross-border fishing activities in the area between the Philippines and Indonesia.

Before the advent of the colonial state, people from both regions were free to do shipping activities between their respective territories. After Indonesia gained its independence, these people continued to live in the Philippines, making them Indonesian diaspora. The Philippine government labelled them as persons of Indonesian descent (PID). Currently, the Indonesian diaspora in the southern Philippines has spread out, not only in Balut and Sarangani islands but also in the provinces of Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, and General Santos City.

In 2017, after prolonged talks and negotiations between the two governments, some Indonesians finally acquired their citizenship through issuance of official documents from the Indonesian Consulate General Office in Davao. It is quite common that family members in a single household can hold different citizenships as some preferred to be Indonesian while the rest chose to hold on to their Philippine citizenship. During the outbreak of the Corona Virus Disease (COVID19), the lingering question still remains whether the diaspora community has equal rights to access social services from the Indonesian and the Philippines’ government. Rumetor (2019) reiterates that diasporas as non-citizens have equal position with citizens, including entitlement to law protection from the country which granted citizenship and the country where they stay.

In this global pandemic situation, the relief from the government is one of the primary means to serve and protect their citizens, especially for the vulnerable sectors of the society. Surprisingly, the Indonesian diaspora first received aid from the Philippine government. After the city mayor of Davao Honorable Sara Duterte announced the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) measures in early April, support was also extended even to the Indonesian communities affected by COVID-19. Indonesian diasporas who live in Davao region receive aid in the form of staple foods, including rice subsidy, some cans of sardines, corned beef, and chicken loaves that can be accessed every week for each household. This assistance can be accessible to all community living in Davao region without any exception. Besides, the Philippine government also helped people who lost their jobs during the ECQ. Qualified recipients in the region can get a minimum financial assistance amounting to 6,000 pesos.

Although many experienced some delays because of the lack of accessible transportation during the ECQ, some Indonesians also received support from the Indonesian Consulate General in Davao. Muslim community under the consulate-supported Mosque distributed a package of rice and basic needs to the Indonesian diaspora affected by COVID-19. They also received funds that circulated through their liaison officers since the consulate staff could not access all Indonesian diasporas spread in all areas of the Davao region due to travel restriction.

However, there are some issues related to aid from the Indonesian government. First, the Indonesian consulate in Davao only depends on the SBKRI (Surat Bukti Kewarganegaraan Indonesia or letter of proving Indonesian citizenship) as a basis for aid distribution. Many Indonesian diasporas are still undocumented in the southern Philippines. As a result, only a small number of Indonesians can access that support.

Secondly, the beneficiaries of the Indonesian government assistance are registered individuals, meaning that each registered individual receives one package of provision. Under this arrangement, a family of seven Indonesian citizens will receive seven packages. Things get complicated because some families have different settings. For instance, another family with the same number of people with just one person of Indonesian citizenship is only entitled to one package. Therefore, this situation creates conflict among the diaspora themselves, where they want the aid given on a household basis like what the Philippine government normally does.

Laquerre (2017) argued that an ideal relation among diaspora can be achieved when host and home country can give equal access to the diaspora as citizens of their home country. During catastrophes, support and help must be distributed to all residents, not only to its citizens but also to non-citizens. In this context, the good relations among Indonesian diaspora, the Philippine government and the Indonesian government can be sustained.

Despite some complaints aired by the Indonesians to the Indonesian government concerning the delay in distribution of aid and uneven distribution of assistance, the provision of support by the Indonesian government to their diasporic members must be appreciated as an initial step to achieve such an ideal relationship. In any case, the Indonesian government has to employ culturally-appropriate approach in dealing with the Indonesian community and prepare any contingency plan to offer services especially in situations like this. Lastly, the Indonesian government can learn from the relief provisions initiative of the Philippines counterpart, where citizens and non-citizens are not discriminated. Home and host country must ensure the protection and fulfillment of the rights of the diasporic community. I believe that the Philippine government made an outstanding job on how a state should conduct itself as shown in its non-discriminatory provision of social services to Indonesia diaspora during this global pandemic crisis.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amorisa Wiratri is researcher at the Research Centre for Area Studies, Indonesian Institute of Sciences. She has 10 years of research experience with focus on Southeast Asian studies, especially related to diaspora, migration, and border studies. She finished her undergraduate studies on Cultural Anthropology at Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia and graduated from Women’s studies at Flinders University, Adelaide for her master’s degree. She is now taking her Ph.D. at the Anthropology and Sociology department of the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia. She was supposed to visit the Davao region but flights were cancelled due to the lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19)

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