Forced migration in indonesia : historical perspectives

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Graeme Hugo

Federation Fellow,

Professor of Geography

and Director of the National Centre for

Social Applications of GIS, The University of Adelaide


URL: http//
Revised paper presented to International Conference on Toward New Perspectives on Forced Migration In Southeast Asia, organised by Research Centre for Society and Culture (PMB) at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at the University of Oxford, Jakarta, 25-26 November 2004
For consideration by Asia and Pacific Migration Journal
May 2005


This paper argues that an historical perspective is important in the understanding of contemporary forced migration in Indonesia. It demonstrates this through an analysis of the major pre 1965 forced migrations in the country. It shows that many contemporary population flows both forced and unforced have their origins in historical forced migration. For example, urbanization in Indonesia in the immediate post independence decades was in a major way a function of forced migration. Forced migration also has created chain migration linkages between origin and destination along which later non-forced movements occur. It is also shown that historical forces are often responsible for the political, economic and social inequalities which are an important influence on contemporary patterns of migration.


Migration on a permanent or temporary basis has long been one of the most important survival strategies adopted by Indonesians in the face of natural or human-caused disasters. However, our contemporary understanding of this form of movement remains limited. Perhaps because the underlying cause of movement is apparently self-evident in the term “forced migration” there has not been as much research attention devoted as to so-called voluntary migrations. This is wrong for at least two reasons. Firstly, while the forced/voluntary dichotomy does obviously have some basis in reality, it is by no means as clear-cut as it appears and it conceals a great deal of complexity in the nature, causes and impact of forced migrations. Moreover it is apparent that even where migration is triggered by a response to the onset of physical disasters or conflict of some kind the deeper underlying fundamental causes of the movement have not been those events so much as inequalities in access to power and resources between groups. These deeper underlying forces create a vulnerability to the impact of disasters. In Indonesia, attention has been directed toward the movements of population since the major political and economic changes of the late 1990s which have been attributed to conflict, especially ethnic based conflict (Hugo, 2002). However, forced migration has a longer history in Indonesia and the present paper seeks to summarise the major patterns of forced migration, which occurred in Indonesia before gaining independence and in the early post independence period. These migrations provide an important context for examining contemporary forced migration in Indonesia.

Defining and Categorising Involuntary Migrants and Refugees

The migration literature is replete with typologies which differentiate migrants and migrations according to the relative permanency of the move, the distance traversed, the nature of the boundaries crossed, the causes of the move, the characteristics of the movers, etc. One of the pervasive distinctions made between types of population movements is that between voluntary and forced migrations which dates back 80 years to Fairchild's (1925) migration classification. Perhaps the most frequently quoted typology of migration is that of Peterson (1958) in which one of the most fundamental divisions employed is the degree to which a move is "forced". However, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration is not as clear-cut as it would appear at first glance. As Speare (1974:89) points out ... "In the strictest sense migration can be considered to be involuntary only when a person is physically transported from a country and has no opportunity to escape from those transporting him. Movement under threat, even the immediate threat to life, contains a voluntary element, as long as there is an option to escape to another part of the country, go into hiding or to remain and hope to avoid persecution." On the other hand, some scholars of migration, especially those of the Marxian school, argued that much of the population mobility which is conventionally seen as being voluntary occurs in situations in which in fact the migrants have little or no choice. Amin (1974:100), for example, in his discussion of contemporary migration in Western Africa states that... "A comparative costs and benefits analysis, conducted at the individual level of the migrant, has no significance. In fact it only gives the appearance of objective rationality to a 'choice' (that of the migrant) which in reality does not exist because, in a given system, he has no alternatives". Indeed the early typology developed by Peterson referred to above recognised this degree of overlap between voluntary and involuntary movement and distinguished an intermediate category. He differentiated between “… impelled migration when the migrants retain some power to decide whether or not to leave and forced migration when they do not have this power" (Peterson, 1958:261). These are in turn separated from free migration in which the will of the migrants is the decisive element initiating movement.

There is also diversity in the literature with respect to what particular types of involuntary migration can be identified. Much of this centres around the issue of defining the term refugee. While the term refugee migration is in some cases used as a synonym for involuntary migration, others apply it only to a very restricted sub-set of all such movements. The 1967 United Nations Protocol on Refugees considers a refugee as “… every person who, owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."(Keely, 1981:6).

An alternative approach, which is more congruent with the day to day use of the term refugee, is that which distinguishes refugees from other migrants by the causes of their movement. A good example of such a definition is that provided by Olson (1979:130)...

"Refugees differ from other, spontaneous or sponsored migrants, largely in the circumstances of their movement out of one area to another, and the effects these have on them in the settlement and adjustment phases of their relocation. Refugees are forced to leave their homes because of a change in their environment which makes it impossible to continue life as they have known it. They are coerced by an external force to leave their homes and go elsewhere."

This definition stresses the involuntary, forced nature of the move, the "uprooting" suddenness of most refugee moves and the externality to the mover of the force or forces impelling the move. It also implies a substantial degree of powerlessness among the movers in the decision to move and selection of destination. There is no consideration in this definition of the distance the refugees move or whether or not they cross an international boundary, although Olson points out ‘these spatial factors do affect refugees' adjustment after flight". This definition is clearly more holistic and sees refugee moves as a subset of all population mobility rather than of international migration.

Olson's definition is also broader than that of the U.N. with respect to the nature of the external force or forces, the threat or presence of which impels refugee movements. Again, the United Nations definition is somewhat restrictive in that it refers only to persecution or fear of persecution as initiating refugee movement. Keely (1981:6) points out that this excludes people fleeing the ravages of war, and who are usually considered refugees, although the broader definitions in wider use usually include such groups. More commonly, persons who are displaced by civil conflict or war are also categorized as refugees. Some writers, however, have extended the recognition of forces which create refugee movements even further and go beyond the conflicts created by human agents to include people displaced from their home areas by natural disasters. Olson (1979:130), for example, identifies the following five types of external compulsions that alone or in concert create refugees...

1 Physical dangers (e.g. floods, volcanic eruptions etc.)

2. Economic insufficiency (e.g. drought, famine)

3. Religious persecution

4. Ethnic persecution

5. Ideological persecution.

While it recognised that there are elements of force in much of the movement characterised as voluntary, the concentration here is on movers where there has been some compulsion to move by the sudden onset of life threatening conditions (Zolberg and Suhrke (1984:1). These can be divided firstly (Hugo and Chan, 1990) into those initiated by “natural” disasters although it is recognised that these often have an underlying political, economic and social cause. These are migrants who are forced to flee their home areas by the onset of (or the fear of) a natural calamity or disaster which include the first two categories of Olson's (1979) classification of external compulsions to migration listed above and covers not only the migrations initiated by the sudden and violent onset of floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions etc. but also the "silent violence" (Spitz, 1978) of drought, famine and severe food shortage.

The second category of forced migration identified here are the largely involuntary movements initiated by the onset or threat of some form of externally imposed conflict which make it impossible for people to continue life as they have known it were they to remain at their home place. This means that conflict or the threat of conflict is seen as being the key condition. Zolberg and Suhrke (1984:2) stress the “life threatening” nature of the forces initiating such movements as being…

“… characterised by the immediacy of life threatening compulsion, its relative deliberate exercise by some agent and the inability of persons affected by it to rely on their government for even nominal protection.”

It must be stressed, however, that we are referring here to the immediate cause which triggers the forced migration, not necessarily the deeper underlying long term determinants. For example, many "natural" disasters have their root causes in long term political, social, economic or agricultural practices or policies.

In both of the types of forced movement identified here external pressures are paramount in initiating moves - without the sudden introduction of particular external forces the move would not have occurred. As Kunz (1973:130) points out ... "It is the reluctance to uproot oneself, and the absence of positive original motivations to settle elsewhere, which characterises all refugee decisions and distinguishes the refugee from the voluntary migrants." In fact Kunz goes on to recognize two distinct "kinetic" types of refugee movement in which the chief distinction is the strength of the external forces impinging upon the potential refugee.

(a) Anticipatory refugee movements involve people moving before the deterioration of the military or political situation becomes overwhelming, preventing an orderly departure.

(b) Acute refugee movements, where the emphasis is on unplanned flight en masse or in bursts of individual or group escapes where the overwhelming objective is to reach a haven of safety.

This differentiation is equally applicable to Natural Disaster Migrants. These definitions, of course, are far from clear-cut and there remain areas of overlap. However, they do have meaning in the Indonesian context.

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