An Analysis of Refugee Education in Indonesia: Power, Culture, and Hegemony

A couple of Refugee kids at a shelter in Tangerang, Indonesia



Indonesia is currently dealing with a significant influx of refugees. As reported by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2023, there are approximately 12,199 refugees within the country’s borders. Notably, as this country has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, specifically in UU 6 about immigration in 2011, stipulates that every individual entering or leaving the country is required to possess valid travel documents. This legal stance leads to categorizing the refugees as illegal migrants. Furthermore, it causes them ineligible to work in Indonesia. This standpoint also disregards the refugees' right to education, as outlined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948).

In this Indonesian case, it generates a certain form of devaluation of human rights. In particular, the scarcity of job opportunities contributes to the reluctance to enable refugees to work in this country (Nola, 2021). This essay aims to explore the Indonesian government's response to this issue, utilizing the Neo-Gramscian Theory. This theoretical framework focuses on analyzing how power, culture, and hegemony are practiced in this context, provide a profound explanation on the complex dynamics surrounding refugee rights and their integration into the society.

Neo-Gramscian Theory as The Theoretical Framework

The influential idea of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci or the so-called Neo-Gramscian Theory holds important theoretical value to a profound understanding of the dynamics of ‘power’. This theory illuminates decision-making processes, resource allocation, and the ability to set policies. Another aspect related to this theory is how ‘culture’ is shaped by dominant ideas and values in society. Ultimately, these two aspects of the theory contribute to understanding how ‘hegemony’ operates because power cannot be fully appreciated without considering these elements (Ramesh, 2021). Moreover, culture is a central concept that establishes the so-called "norm", dictating practices and institutions to maintain dominance and ideology. Thus, within this theoretical framework, hegemony is described not as an independent variable but as intertwined with power and cultural practices.

In the context of the right to education for refugees in Indonesia, the theory serves as an analytical tool to explore how hegemonic practices are formed through power and cultural dynamics. This framework will scrutinize how media, beliefs, identities, and values shape cultural practices and how power influences these variables to build a particular hegemonic agenda (Winkler, 2020). In extreme scenarios, individuals in power may exert influence over cultural practices which potentially lead to conflicts and normalized in political views. Despite the existing moral foundation of politics, the issue that occurs remains unresolved and continue to be a subject of ongoing debate.

Historical Context of Refugee Education in Indonesia

Indonesia’s non-ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention, relieving the responsibility from granting them becoming an Indonesian. However, in 1979, the government began to collaborate with the UNHCR to provide a refugee camp in Galang Island due to an influx of approximately 170,000 refugees fleeing from conflicts in neighboring countries. The number of asylum seekers were in fluctuations, increasing from late 2000 until 2002, followed by a decline from 2003 to 2008. After a temporary slowdown from 2015 to 2020, the refugee population was on the raise again, reaching 13,745 individuals from 50 countries by the end of December 2020, with a significant number from Afghanistan. As of 2023, reports indicate that approximately 12,199 individuals are temporarily living in Indonesia.

Besides the large number of refugees in Indonesia, access to education is also problematic. Their status as illegal migrants barred them not only from working, but also the right to education. However, some nonprofit organizations facilitate free education for refugees. The Ministry of Education officially recognized access to schooling for refugee children based on the letter from the Secretary General of the Ministry of Education and Culture, number 75253/A.A.4/HK/2019 (Fatimah, 2023). Despite official recognition, language barriers remain one of the challenges for this country. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia has been providing hope for refugees to access formal education with the new regulation. This organization acts as the bridge between the refugees and the Indonesian government. While education was previously provided solely by the IOM, refugees now have the chance to attend formal schools. The purpose of this education is to ensure that they are equipped with skills, when they are repatriated to their homeland or seek resettlement in the third country.

Despite the recent and significant regulations on access to education, several children still encounter challenges. This is due to the fact that some children might be unwilling to go to school, their parents may lack the financial means to support their education, and their temporary living (Aurelia & Renaldi, 2022). Since the responsibility for funding lies with the parents, it leads to a new challenge to the policy on how to grapple with the situation when children are ready for an education, yet their parents are not able to support them.

Power Dynamics on Refugee Education in Indonesia

Indonesia is a republican country, where the rule power based on the representatives of the citizens and the public. Additionally, this country is a unitary state in which all of the regions spread across Indonesia are regulated by central law. The president is elected by the citizens, holds the power as the head of the government. In terms of types of laws, Undang-Undang Dasar (UUD) 1945 becomes foundational law, with other laws following it such as resolutions and decisions by The People's Consultative Assembly of the Republic of Indonesia (MPR-RI), government regulations in lieu of law, government regulations, presidential regulations, and local government regulations (Pramesti, 2023).

This large bureaucracy often poses challenges in some cases, including the right access to education for refugees in this country. In one case, before the implementation of the new regulation, the refugee students were rejected from attending the formal school because of their status of illegal migrants. A recent movement by the Ministry of Education has given the children of refugees the power to access formal education to equip them with the skills so that they can survive in the next third country or their home country. Fatimah (2023) reported that the government shared the official letter on the regulation on the refugees' right to education to several regions in Indonesia.

Based on the case, the government recognized the refugees' right to education and has made it equal to the citizens of Indonesia's right to education. Although this case forms an equity that the government frames, the parents are still not able to get jobs because of pre-existing laws. Besides, Putra and Linda (2022) argued that corruption is still a major problem in this country, and the country is also still developing, especially when it comes to the social welfare. Another minor problem is that the government still puts an obligation on students to wear the same uniform. While the idea behind this is to increase a sense of unity, in reality, it burdens because the citizens should still be responsible in this matter. Thus, the Indonesian government needs to readjust this policy. The government has offered financial aid programs for some students, but several schools are still involved in corrupt practices particularly in the school infrastructure development (Purwanto et al., 2021).

Another identified key actor is individuals who are involved in the media. Media strengthen the identity on portraying refugees in this case. Several media depict refugees in as potential social actors for the countries, such as how their children can finally go to school, and how some refugees find hope in the middle of uncertainty. However, some media portray refugees as the source of problems for the country (Adiputera & Prabandari, 2018). For instance, recently in 2023, there was a case where the new influx of Rohingya refugees was denied to stay in Aceh, Indonesia. The media demonstrated the case to the audience by having an interview with local people around there, in which the emergence of new issues caused by the refugees such as rape, escaping without notifying the local government of the third country, and other forms of disrespectfulness. While to some extent, it is true, this is where education is required for them, especially the children. Several refugees may have lack of access to education. Essentially, human beings are prone to error, and education is the way to diminish it.

Cultural Dimensions of Refugee Education in Indonesia

Indonesia is still exclusive in most cases when it comes to education due to many factors, such as limited facilities and human resources. Regarding facilities, many educational institutions segregate students, particularly those with communication disabilities (Tsaputra, 2016). This segregation is based on the perception that students with disabilities require specialized teachers, including the way teachers communicate with them to succeed the learning process. Additionally, the lack of inclusive facilities adds the reasons why people with disabilities in Indonesia are often confined to specific schools.

In the case of refugee education in Indonesia, socioeconomic factors affect the culture, making most schools in Indonesia unprepared to include refugee children. This is evident in the limited implementation of the new regulation on the right to access education for refugees, which is only enforced in several regions (Fatimah, 2023). Additionally, Wijayanti (2020) explained that the presence of many local languages in different regions complicates the situation for refugee students. They must navigate two languages simultaneously, with Bahasa Indonesia serving as the language of instruction in most cases, while the local language is preferred and commonly used in daily communication among local people.

Another cultural challenge is the curriculum, which includes subjects aimed at strengthening Indonesian identity, such as art and culture. However, this poses a dilemma for refugee education as it is not aligned with their needs in preparing for life in a third country (Prabaningtyas et al., 2023). For refugee children, these subjects become irrelevant since they will not become Indonesian citizens.

Hegemonic Practices of Refugee Education in Indonesia

After discussing the power dynamics and cultural dimensions at work and how they influence refugee education in Indonesia, Neo-Gramscian theory explains more about how hegemonic practices are formed from the power and cultural aspects in the country. Furthermore, the analysis is elaborated as follows:

  • Power and Culture

The first key important aspect is how key actors play a significant role in how refugees are depicted, with the role of media as a powerful tool in shaping certain norms and ideologies (Ateed & Özcan, 2023). Moreover, Indonesia being a democratic country emphasizes the significance of objective media portrayal that provides both negative and positive perspectives on refugees. The media must emphasize the need for education rather than portraying refugees as outsiders burdening the country. The framing affects public opinion, and the culture formed around such media portrayals influences Indonesians to perceive refugees as an added burden to the country, especially in the context of economic instability.

  • Hegemony and Culture

The second interrelated element is how culture can lead to hegemonic practices among those who are in power. If the media portrays refugees as a burden, it becomes a cultural norm for Indonesians. For example, individuals working for the government might use propaganda to achieve political purposes, knowing that in the context of Indonesian democracy, holding power and media are essential to influence people. Ramesh (2021) explained that gradually, this cultural acceptance of the issue strengthens individual identities and perceptions.

  • Hegemony and Power

Power is something that can be gained or lost quickly due to the competition between individuals vying for positions. This case allows individuals to compete and share their influence through various approaches, including generating propaganda in extreme scenarios. Individuals competing for top positions portray themselves as worthy leaders. In the case of refugee education in Indonesia, the media serves as a tool in shaping culture and ideology, and leaders with power behind the media are allowed to collaborate with others competing for leadership roles in the Indonesian government. For instance, there is an absolute disagreement regarding the corruption. However, to several houses, how media portrays refugee education as a low priority provides an alternative explanation of how corruptors benefit from this case. The hegemonic practice occurs when they involved with governmental regulation and media to force public opinion to distract the citizens by normalizing corruption as the pre-existing data as if the refugees are the added burden for the country (Cader & Sundrijo, 2023).

G. Pre-repatriation and Educational Needs of Refugees

The issue of refugees has persisted for many years due to complex geopolitical problems (Chimni, 1998). This matter has become a global problem that must be addressed by all countries worldwide. In particular, access to education has been challenging for them, facing obstacles such as limited resources, language barriers, and a lack of infrastructure in several countries. In Indonesia, the IOM is one of the international organizations that has been grappling with these issues, mediating between refugees and governmental regulations. The more organizations that deal with this issue, the higher possibility that refugees can be assisted not only in several regions but relocated to a wider area. If all refugees are concentrated in one area, for example, Jakarta, it will be challenging for all stakeholders to cope with the influx of refugees from other countries. Indeed, establishing an organization would also require support from both national and international governments.

Implications and Recommendations

Indonesia should give a consideration to the matter of refugee issues, especially in education. Refugees should not be perceived solely as a threat to the country because fundamentally, humans are prone to error. There may be some individuals perceived as law-abiding, but also an individual who could break the regulations. When it comes to crime, education plays a significant role in educating them instead of rejecting and repatriating those who have traveled and survived for miles, whether by sea or on foot. The country could provide a humane way to educate them in the first place before repatriating them.

The writer believes that this issue will remain unsolved if host countries perceive refugees as a threat to them. This condition can be seen as an opportunity for refugees to come to other countries to gain certain experiences through education. Once educated, they must return to their country, becoming a generation that will bring positive change. These refugees hold the potential to be the future hope for their homeland.


In conclusion, the counter-hegemonic practices toward this issue include portraying refugees as an opportunity for every host country, particularly in Indonesia, to address this global issue more humanely. It includes providing them with the right access to education. When they complete their education, they must return to their home country to implement what they have learned in the host country. While it may become a challenge for them initially, as they return to a country with its own set of issues, the responsibility lies in their readiness to fight for justice and make changes. Gradually, as the generation changes, these returning refugees become agents of change. The hegemonic practices of refugee education can be achieved by centralizing power from the media and the government. These key actors influence how culture is shaped, ensuring that every country sees refugees in a new positive light.


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