Australian academics want research permits in Indonesia treaty

Piggybacking on free trade negotiations could remove administrative hurdles and discourage ‘lone wolf’ researchers

October 7, 2019
Indonesia Java Yogyakarta Borobodur Temple Buddhist Buddha
Source: iStock

Australian academics are turning to free trade negotiations to tackle an onerous visa regime that risks undermining Indonesia’s ambition to strengthen its research.

A university consortium has lobbied parliamentarians examining the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) to include research visas in the treaty.

Australia changed the rules for visiting researchers in 2016, offering multi-entry permits valid for two years. Indonesia offers foreign researchers 12-month permits which must be obtained from the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (Ristekdikti).

In a process that can take months and cost up to 10 million Indonesian rupiah (£577) – double that for fieldwork in conservation areas – researchers must also obtain separate permits from the Ministry of Home Affairs and national police. They must report to Ristekdikti and local immigration offices after arriving, and require more permits to visit conservation areas, remove biological samples and leave Indonesia.

Many academics instead use 30-day tourist visas, available gratis at Indonesian airports. Earlier this year, two Australian scholars were turned away and temporarily banned from Indonesia after trying to enter the country on tourist visas.

The situation could deteriorate following the July passage of Indonesia’s national system for science and technology bill. The law imposes penalties of up to 4 billion rupiah for foreign researchers without valid permits, and up to seven years’ jail for research that causes harm or death, according to the Jakarta Post.

The Australia-Indonesia Centre (AIC) said such threats were causing “angst and concern” in university circles. In a briefing to MPs, AIC said the law was “raising the risk profile of engaging with Indonesia at precisely the historic moment when Indonesia has begun to reach out to other countries…to boost its science and technology capacity”.

The briefing notes that the treaty allows young Indonesians to spend up to two years in Australia on working holiday visas. “It might be opportune to seek some reciprocity…in relaxing or simplifying the arrangements for Australia-based researchers,” it says.

AIC’s Indonesia director, Kevin Evans, said many foreign academics intended to make only short visits. “It takes longer to get the permission than do the research,” he said.

Mr Evans said that while the prospect of jailed researchers had attracted headlines, imprisonment provisions had existed under the previous 2002 legislation. The new law had increased the fines and rendered more activities criminal, but could nevertheless be a “blessing in disguise”.

“It will be putting pressure on the administrative systems to come up with ways of expediting visas,” he said. “Indonesian researchers will be saying, ‘If we’re going to impose these kinds of conditions on foreigners, let’s at least make it easier for them.’”

The new law could also improve local academics’ bargaining power with foreign partners, while strengthening requirements for overseas academics to work with Indonesian collaborators.

“What sometimes happens is that the Indonesians are either not included in the final paper, or stuffed down the bottom in a brief thank you,” Mr Evans said.

Mr Evans said the law was rooted in resentment over decades of foreigners pillaging Indonesia’s natural and cultural treasures, particularly biological samples with lucrative pharmaceutical potential.

But the “optics” of the legislation were unfortunate at a time when Indonesia was pursuing foreign research engagement. “As is often the case here, the left hand sketches out a new direction and the right hand says something different.”

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