Indonesia’s ‘new normal’ immigration policy may break families apart

Photo of a visa on arrival on a passport. Photo: the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism
Photo of a visa on arrival on a passport. Photo: the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism

Starla Wehrli and Rio welcomed their first child on June 4, a day that marked the beginning of their new journey as a family of three. 

But Indonesia’s newly updated immigration policy amid the COVID-19 pandemic might force their little family ⁠— and others ⁠— to separate in less than a month. 

“I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone: to think that you have to leave your newborn baby in a matter of weeks. And then leave them for who knows how long,” Wehrli said.

Indonesia adopted emergency measures at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in response to global travel restrictions amid the pandemic, and granted foreigners in the country emergency stay permits. On Monday, a new set of regulations came into force for various stay permits and visa holders in Indonesia, which has unsurprisingly been met with shock and backlash. 

Wehrli is one of the many foreigners impacted by the latest regulations in Indonesia and ⁠— unless any significant changes occur ⁠— will have to leave the country by Aug. 12. 

“I’m shocked. I’m standing there [at the immigration office] with my husband and 5-week-old daughter crying and begging them to help us. They said they cannot.”

Under normal circumstances, Wehrli’s status as a foreign national would only mean going through heaps of bureaucratic procedures common in Indonesia to secure the appropriate stay permit. 

The 38-year-old American has been living in Bali for almost three years, and got married to Rio, who is Indonesian, last July. She’s been staying in the country with a temporary stay permit, or ITAS, which was originally sponsored by her employer in Indonesia. 

With that ITAS having expired on July 3, Wehrli planned on changing it to a spouse-sponsored permit. But the newly announced immigration rules place her under the category of ITAS holders ineligible for extension, and with immigration not accepting new applications amid the pandemic, she will have to leave next month.

“I’m shocked. I’m standing there [at the immigration office] with my husband and 5-week-old daughter crying and begging them to help us. They said they cannot,” Wehrli said. 

Wehrli has limited options. She is trying to get her daughter an emergency passport so both mother and daughter can at least stay together, but with the ongoing pandemic it might take three to four weeks to process. With other paperwork required to bring her daughter along for the journey, there may not be enough time to process things before she is due to leave.

“There is no way for me to leave with her unless she has her paperwork,” the new mother said.

“We also met with her pediatrician today who said she is not fit to fly. She is too young, she’s not had her vaccines ⁠— it’s too risky even in one month.”

Kailene Klix and Kadek Dwi Devayana got married on July 5. Photo courtesy of Kailene Klix.
Kailene Klix and Kadek Dwi Devayana got married on July 5. Photo courtesy of Kailene Klix.

It’s a different yet similar story for Kailene Klix, who may not have enough time to arrange everything to stay with her husband, a Balinese man named Kadek Dwi Devayana, here in Indonesia. 

The couple, who met one and a half years ago, had to weather through language barriers and Kadek’s traditional Balinese family before their relationship was accepted. 

“We fell [in love] pretty fast, but it wasn’t always easy. His family wanted him with a Balinese girl,” Klix said of her relationship with Kadek. 

“[But] after trying for some time they were convinced and honestly I didn’t expect as warm of a welcome as I’ve had.”

Klix, who is also American, told Coconuts Bali that they initially planned to work on their marriage paperwork in March but were forced to wait it out as the coronavirus outbreak grinded everything to a halt. The couple had also planned to get married in June, but was again forced to cancel because of the pandemic. 

Then in April, Klix found out she’s pregnant. 

They got married on July 5 through a traditional Balinese wedding ceremony, but were unable to get the required paperwork for an official marriage certificate due to halted operations amid the pandemic. Klix is currently on a work ITAS that will expire next month, and even if they could start the process for a spouse-sponsored ITAS, the fact that immigration isn’t currently processing new applications puts them back to zero. 

“I have been told I need to leave in 30 days [from July 13] despite being five months pregnant,” Klix said. 

“They act like everything is our fault for not having it all together but how can we do anything when the government [offices] are all closed and with different rules?”

She said that she is trying to stay calm throughout the ordeal, adding that her husband, who is normally calm and carefree, is also stressing out. 

“I just wish they had anticipated the backlash and questions, and been prepared for such situations,” Klix added, before lamenting on the possibility of delivering the baby in the US without Kadek.

The international departure hall at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport. Photo: Coconuts Media
File photo of the international departure hall at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport. Photo: Coconuts Media

Meanwhile, 30-year-old Martina Iribarne entered Indonesia with a free 30-day visa. She had only planned a short stay in Bali before heading to Australia, where she was supposed to work for a year. When the borders closed due to the pandemic, Iribarne stayed here in Indonesia thinking she could at least stay until the global health crisis is over. 

Australia is not currently accepting foreign visitors, and Iribarne said she doesn’t have the option to go back to her home country Argentina either, as she doesn’t live there anymore. Even if she could find another country to go to, her options are limited because most countries are still closed to foreign travelers. 

“I feel like a prisoner … I wasn’t planning to stay [in Indonesia]. I feel discriminated against because it is the only visa they don’t let extend,” Iribarne said, referring to how eligible foreigners who entered Indonesia with a visa on arrival have the option of extending their visas. 

“I feel sad for having to leave a country I love and where I feel at home. I have friends living here … I feel impotent because everybody’s telling me there’s nothing to do, that I have to leave.” 

Though Indonesian immigration does not permit extensions for the free 30-day visa, Iribarne said officials should consider adapting the rules to the new situation with COVID-19, or at least allow foreigners to apply for a different type of visa in this unprecedented time.  

Foreigners in Indonesia have taken to social media to share their plight and information, hoping to help each other out and find a tangible solution. 

According to Jamaruli Manihuruk, who heads the regional office for the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, there are about 7,000 foreigners currently in Bali, more than half of whom entered Indonesia using a free visa. 

Arvin Gumilang, a spokesman for the immigration office at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, told Coconuts Bali via WhatsApp yesterday that officials will continue to review the updated policy. 

“We will continue to review the policy to evaluate its effectiveness, but the provisions are already enforced,” Arvin said.

“Though the new regulations are meant to apply as a general rule for all, if there are special cases we will also consider the human rights aspect, but it will certainly require a special policy from the leadership and must first be submitted.” 

It’s not entirely impossible that Indonesian officials will respond to the backlash and concerns with compassion, but for the time being foreigners like Wehrli, Klix, and Iribarne are unfortunately still left in a limbo. 

“Everybody said ‘they don’t care,’” Iribarne said, referring to the Indonesian government. 

“But I hope they change their minds in the [coming] days.”

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