JAKARTA: To escape Jakarta’s searing heat, a family of three scavengers took shelter under a leafy tree at the side of a busy street.
Next to them on the concrete pavement was a cart filled with empty plastic bottles and cups they had collected earlier that day.
A hundred metres ahead, another group of scavengers, beggars and buskers napped on cardboard boxes underneath an overpass.
These people survive by collecting recyclables or panhandling for loose change from passers-by, but in the eyes of the Indonesian law, they are criminals. Their offence? Being homeless.
Currently, the Indonesian Criminal Code penalises the homeless with a maximum sentence of three months in prison, and up to six months if they travel in a group of three or more people over the age of 16.
The Indonesian parliament is currently deliberating a revision to the Criminal Code, which is modelled after the code used by the Dutch colonial government since 1872, decades before Indonesia gained independence in 1945.
Despite opposition from experts and activists who have called it outdated and ineffective, lawmakers have opted to keep the anti-homeless provision in the latest version of the Bill, although the proposed punishment has been reduced to a maximum fine of one million rupiah (US$70).
The politicians said decriminalising homelessness is not an option for now, but government watchdogs and non-governmental organisations said punishing people for having nowhere to live would never solve the root causes of the problem.
"SOME PEOPLE HAVE MADE A PROFESSION OUT OF BEGGING"
The Bill to revise the punishment for homelessness is currently being debated at the parliament’s legal commission.
If the Bill is approved by the commission, the country’s 560 MPs will then vote on the Bill in the plenary session, which begins on Sep 23.
“We need to keep homelessness as a criminal offence because we cannot disregard the fact that some people have made begging a profession,” said Mr Nasir Djamil, a member of parliament (MP) from the opposition Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
The idea to keep homelessness as a criminal offence is to deter and prevent people from being homeless in the first place, he said.
“If we take it out of the Criminal Code, homelessness would be legal and the homeless people would have no incentive to look for jobs or a roof over their heads.”
Mr Djamil said fellow parliamentarians have agreed to keep the provision although they are still debating the action to be taken when an offender cannot afford to pay the fine.
Lawmaker Mr Arsul Sani, from the pro-government United Development Party (PPP), admitted that the Criminal Code bill - last revised in 1981 - “is far from perfect”.
“But it has been decades since we revised it and we have been deliberating on this Bill for years. We need to pass the bill first and fix all of its imperfections later,” he told CNA.
The current members of the House of Representatives will end their term on Sep 30 and the following day, a new batch of lawmakers will be sworn in.
Therefore, Mr Sani hoped the Bill would be passed as early as Sep 24. “If we hand this Bill over to the next batch of MPs, we will go back to square one,” he said.
MILLIONS ARE VULNERABLE
According to the 2010 census, there are approximately three million homeless people in Indonesia, and 25 million more live in illegal slums.
Mr Erasmus Napitipulu, executive director of Jakarta-based watchdog Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, questioned the effectiveness of the centuries-old provision in reducing homelessness and maintaining public order.
He said it would instead put millions of Indonesians at risk of going to jail.
“Although rarely enforced, we shouldn’t make homelessness a crime. The poor should not be punished for the government’s failure to meet the basic needs of its people,” he said.
Mr Napitipulu dismissed lawmakers’ argument that the law is in place to deter homelessness.
“The fact that there are millions who are homeless is enough to prove that it is irrelevant. The Criminal Code is about punishing offenders. If the aim is to prevent homelessness, then the government should make houses affordable and jobs available,” he said.
Officially, the law defines the homeless as “people who do not have a place to live and a steady job and live on public places”.
Ms Gita Damayana, executive director of the Law and Policy Study Centre (PSHK), said this means the law could also criminalise the 14,000 asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia for years while waiting to be resettled in a third country.
“They are not citizens of Indonesia but they live in Indonesia and are inside Indonesian Criminal Code jurisdiction. The law can also make them criminals,” she said.
Indonesia has been a favourite transit place for many asylum seekers from Middle Eastern and African countries looking to make the perilous journey to Australia by boat.
However, many have been tricked by smugglers who ran away with their money. Some were intercepted by the Indonesian authorities before they could reach their intended destination.
The refugees cannot work in Indonesia because they do not have work visas. They also cannot be deported because of their status as a refugee under the United Nations Refugee Convention.
As a result, many live on the streets, relying on the kindness of strangers or charity organisations.
Mr Salem Shaikh Muslim, an asylum seeker from war-torn Aleppo in Syria, said he has been sleeping rough on Jakarta’s streets for almost two years after running out of money to rent a dormitory room.
Together with hundreds of other refugees, he slept on the sidewalks in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Central Jakarta, and later in front of an immigration detention facility in West Jakarta.
“I came to Indonesia because it is not safe in Syria. I came because I want a better life and a better future. Instead, I live like a beggar without any certainty of when I will be resettled, if ever,” Mr Muslim told CNA.
“We are not criminals. We are not troublemakers. But I don’t mind going to jail. I don’t mind if they enforce the law on me. It’s better than sleeping on the streets.”
EXACERBATING PRISON OVERCROWDING
While the rough-sleeping refugees choose to be visible, the homeless locals want to remain hidden.
They sleep under bridges, live on empty plots of land or in the parks, always anxious about the prospect of being arrested by police or city officials.
Legal watchdog PSHK’s Ms Damayana said homelessness is also barred under a 2007 Jakarta regulation and offenders could face a jail term of between 10 and 90 days.
“The city often raids the homeless and the beggars. Officials then lock them up, send them away to social affairs agency facility and in a few months they are back on the streets. There is no long-term solution for them,” she said.
Jakarta Social Affairs Agency chief Irmansyah, who goes by one name, said the city is teaching the homeless life skills while they are in the agency’s custody.
“We teach them how to sew and cook so once they get out, they can look for work,” he said.
But Ms Damayana said the chance of a homeless person landing permanent employment is very slim. “If you send a homeless person to jail, that person would now have a criminal record. Who would hire that person then?”
For that, Ms Damayana said criminalising homelessness would only exacerbate Indonesia’s prison overcrowding problem.
According to the Indonesian Ministry of Law and Human Rights, there are around 265,000 incarcerated people in Indonesia while correctional facilities across the country only have capacity for 126,963.
If Indonesia decides to fully enforce the provision, the government would have no choice but to build more prisons. That would require more funds to feed and guard the prisoners, Ms Damayana said.
Indonesia is not the only country to outlaw homelessness, but Ms Damayana said these countries have good social welfare systems and programmes which allow the homeless to work in return for housing and food.
BREAKING THE STIGMA
To tackle homelessness, Mr Susilo Adinegoro, an activist who has been teaching street children dance and music for 25 years, said Indonesia must first change its perception towards the homeless and address the root cause of the problem.
“The criminalisation of homelessness stems out of the notion that they are ‘society’s disease’, that the homeless are lazy people and that they don’t belong to society. This notion is shared by many people, including government officials and politicians,” he said.
“Some people became homeless because they were evicted from their homes to make way for toll roads and apartments. Some people became homeless because they lost their jobs. Some people ran away from home as children to escape domestic violence.”
The 60-year-old activist, who founded a boarding school for homeless children called Sanggar Anak Akar, said it is wrong to assume that the homeless live on the streets because they simply do not want to work.
“In reality, they are not lazy. They can be creative. They can be productive. They just need someone to support, nurture and guide them, and society just needs to give them a chance,” Mr Adinegoro said, adding that some of his former pupils have now become accomplished musicians and performers.
“Sending the homeless to jail solves nothing.”