Take Me Home: The Role of Smugglers in Return Migration and Clandestine Border Crossings in Batam, Indonesia

Dr Antje Missbach2, Dr Wayne Palmer1

1Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 2Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

People smuggling is commonly assumed to be unidirectional, namely procuring entrance from origin and transit countries to desirable destinations that offer gainful employment and/or safety from human rights abuses and persecution. But anecdotal evidence shows that under certain circumstances migrants and refugees also make use of smugglers to return to their home countries temporarily or permanently. To examine how this phenomenon contributes to debates in border studies, citizenship studies and mobility studies, we collected in-depth data on how return smuggling takes place from Malaysia to Indonesia along the sea border near Singapore. Indonesian authorities recognize the constitutional right for all Indonesian citizens to return to Indonesia, but prefer that the returnees would pass through immigration checkpoints. Our findings demonstrate that Indonesian authorities generally tolerate return smuggling of fellow Indonesians, not least because it generates illegal income for a wide range of officials. But this tolerance comes at a high price for returnees, who pay relatively high fees to smugglers to arrange the trip home. The Indonesian authorities’ dilemma is a starting point to analyse another aspect of border politics, which reveals logics that result in tolerance of return smuggling for contrast with reactions to other forms of border transgression.


Antje Missbach is a Senior Researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute. Her research interests include the socio-legal dimensions of forced migration in Southeast Asia, border regimes, asylum policies and refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific, as well as diaspora politics and long-distance nationalism.

Wayne Palmer is a Research Fellow at Monash University. His current research projects focus on institutional capacity to prosecute and punish human trafficking and to enforce the rights of trafficked migrants in Indonesia. Wayne has over 10 years’ experience researching regulatory regimes in Indonesia.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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