Considering that expatriates living in Indonesia have experienced both natural and man-made emergency situations, we have included this information -- not to alarm our readers -- but to challenge you to think about what steps your family should take in an emergency, before it occurs.
Besides political turmoil, there are other, more common, situations in which you may need to leave Indonesia suddenly, such as in the death of a family member at home or a medical evacuation. Many of the preparation tips listed below would apply for these emergencies as well.
Vigilance and avoiding obvious targets
Since the terrorist bombings of the Australian Embassy in 2004, most embassies continue to advise expatriates to use discretion when going to places with a large concentration of Westerners. These locations could include popular nightclubs, restaurants, malls and places of worship that cater to the expatriate community. When a large gathering is imminent such as charity balls or Christmas parties that many of the women's groups or Chambers of Commerce organize, heavy security is in place to ensure that the event can be held in a safe environment. When out in public, be aware of exit points from any building you are in and keep yourself oriented. You might consider carrying a small flashlight in your purse to guide your way in case of a power outage.
Keep the following at hand and up-to-date at all times
- Passport. Ensure your passport and any necessary visas are valid. This may be obvious, yet think of all the times that your passport has been in the hands of your company's formalities staff or at the immigration office for renewal. Be sure that you have a photocopy of all the pages in your passport BEFORE you turn in your passport at visa/work permit renewal time, or when applying for an exit/re-entry permit. By cooperating with your company's formalities staff to insure that they have all the necessary documents needed for your renewal, you may be able to shorten the amount of time your passport is in someone else's hands. During 1998 evacuations some expats were allowed to leave on embassy sponsored flights (not commercial fights) without original passports (with only a photocopy) because their passports were in immigration for processing. Be aware, however, as leaving Indonesia without your original passport could greatly complicate your re-entry after the emergency situation has passed.
- Valid Exit/Re-entry Permit. Under normal conditions, an expatriate in Indonesia on a resident permit would not be allowed to leave Indonesia if he/she does not have a valid exit/reentry permit stamped in his/her passport. We have no reason to believe that under emergency conditions this regulation would automatically be waived. Why take a chance! Imagine taking your run to the airport and finding you can't leave! To avoid any hassles at the airport, always keep your exit/re-entry permit up to date. A multiple exit/re-entry permit valid for one to two years is the best to have, not a single exit/re-entry.
- Airport Departure Tax - be sure you have enough cash on hand to pay the airport tax (Rp 150,000 for international flights) when you leave.
- If you are living in a remote area of eastern Indonesia, consider maintaining an up-to-date visa for Australia at all times. In evacuations from Ambon in January 1999 ... those foreigners who had valid visas to Australia were in a much better position to get to a “safe harbor” quickly.
- Keep a sufficient amount of foreign currency on hand for the country to which you may be evacuated, be that Singapore or Australia or your home country. During emergency situations, credit cards may not be accepted and ATMs may not be functioning.
- Consider the purchase of an open, non-restricted ticket for each member of your family to a nearby country, or from Singapore to your home country. Your embassy evacuation may only take you as far as Singapore or Bangkok, and you might want to have an open ticket from there to your home country. Be aware that an open ticket will not ensure you a seat on a commercial flight out during an emergency (see story at the bottom of this page). During May 1998 evacuations, airlines and travel agents stopped accepting credit card purchases for tickets, as they were afraid that many of the fleeing expatriates would never be back. Possession of an outbound ticket would solve this problem. In addition, the dollar/rupiah exchange rate went crazy during the unrest. Tickets purchased in times of emergency tend to be much more expensive.
- Maintain a current registration with your embassy in Jakarta. All foreign embassies have a registration procedure for their citizens, usually coordinated by the consular office. This registration assists embassy personnel in disseminating emergency information to its citizens in Indonesia, enables them to contact you should the embassy receive an inquiry from family or friends abroad, and assists in the evacuation of citizens during in rare cases of an emergency. Be sure your registration is updated whenever you experience a household move, phone number change, birth of a new child or other family transition.
- Important Family Documents. Should your sudden departure be followed by a lengthy absence from your home in Indonesia, you may find yourself in need of some of the following documents: electronic password list, birth certificates, marriage certificate, divorce or custody papers, school records, medical records, insurance records, investment records, prescription information, credit card information, address book, email address list, banking information and records, tax files, safety deposit keys, pet documents, household goods inventory records (for insurance claims in case of loss during your absence) and resumes for employable adults. Consider assembling a lock box, file folder or some container for all the family's valuable papers. It would be easier to grab these vital documents on the run if they were all located in one readily accessible location. In the case of a fire in your home, having these valuable documents in one place would also facilitate grabbing them prior to leaving the residence.
- Compile a listing of all important numbers and addresses for the records listed above and give/send them to a close family member in your home country for safekeeping. Some people choose to store this information on a virtual cloud location so they can be accessed form anywhere in the world, but be sure that the information is encrypted.
- Make a listing of the irreplaceable family mementos, photos, and items of sentimental value that you wouldn't want to leave behind in an emergency evacuation. Having a list will make it easier for you to locate and pack them up quickly. In an emergency situation these mementos maybe the last things you think of, but ultimately these may be more valuable to you than five changes of clothes, if you are unable to return to Indonesia for any reason!
Good advice to consider
- Carry a handphone with you at all times. Ensure that emergency numbers are programmed into your handphone and that you have a list of important phone numbers in your wallet or purse, spouse's office, embassy, and security firm. Keep an extra phone card for your handphone to prepare for extended hard line phone outages. Consider buying a power pack for extended battery life.
- Discuss emergency evacuation with your company. Know ahead of time what they will or will not do for your family as well as what expenses they will cover. Most multinational companies have a security consultant to advise them on matters of safety. Read their regular bulletins to keep abreast of current events, possible dangers and recommended actions. Rely on your office - they should have a good action plan for emergency situations. If they don't - ask them to make one!
- Consider the safe havens in Jakarta for your family. The safest place will most often be your own home. Second choice may be a five-star hotel on a major thoroughfare that you can easily get to, as these hotels tend to be more closely guarded than residential areas. Foreign embassies and airports are often the first targets of demonstrators. Ask your embassy for points which they consider to be safe havens where their citizens can gather with some degree of protection. If you cannot get assistance from your embassy, you may be able to join the evacuation program of another embassy ... but of course they would prioritize their own citizens.
- Stock an adequate supply of non-perishable food items in your home in preparation for the possibilities of supermarket closures, pasar supply disruptions or electrical outages.
- Your family car may be your escape vehicle to the airport, or to a pickup point determined by your embassy. Be sure your gas tank doesn't go below half a tank in case of gas station closures. Make sure your car is in good working order - check the oil, coolant, tires, and battery. Anticipate instructions you may need to give your driver for usage and care of the car during an extended absence.
- Ensure that you have a good supply of any medications that you take regularly as well as a fully stocked first aid kit, in anticipation of closures of apotik, or reduced mobility to get to a doctor.
- One of the most effective means of protection is to become a true member of your community. Donate for the Lebaran and August 17th activities as requested by your RT (neighborhood head), participate in community cleanup days, join in (when appropriate) the various celebrations that are organized by your RT throughout the year. By demonstrating an open, friendly attitude to your Indonesian neighbors it is highly likely that they will assist and protect you in an emergency situation.
- Develop a plan you can quickly contact friends and family at home in case of an emergency. Most embassies are poorly equipped to handling hundreds (if not thousands) of phone calls from family members in case of an emergency situation. Be aware that in the event of an emergency, often the local telephone lines are over run and it may take a few hours before the lines free up and you are able to make a phone call to friends and family notifying them of your condition and location. Ask your embassy if they have a website which posts travel warnings and send the URL to your family and friends so that they can access the latest emergency information. Be sure to take a list of family and friends' emails with you when you evacuate. Don't forget your friends in Indonesia as well as you may quickly become scattered after evacuation and want to keep in touch. After evacuation post your status on changing Facebook and send emails to key family members and ask them to spread the word that you have gotten out safely.
- Take the time to keep up with current events. Read the local English newspapers and news magazines and watch English news reports. Ask your Indonesian office and household staff for their interpretations of what is happening and its consequences for you and your family. They often have more up-to-date information than the current TV broadcasts as the bamboo telegraph is very effective. They also listen to radio and TV reports in Bahasa Indonesia and can usually understand most of what is being broadcast about what is going on.
- Participate in and support the warden system in the organizations you belong to (usually women's groups and business organizations have one). Be advised however that while they promise to send you security notices and updates ... the warden system will quickly break down in the event of an evacuation as the wardens most likely will also be evacuated. Instructions to wardens is often that they should protect their own family first and then consider the warden responsibility. When phone lines become overloaded during an emergency or because of circuit overload or power outages, wardens often have difficulties contacting people in their districts. Be sure your registration with your embassy is up-to-date so that you can receive their security-related notices, which may keep coming long after the warden system is ineffective.
- Carefully consider options for evacuation destinations, other than Singapore and Australia. For example, after the May 1998 riots, many expats chose to evacuate to Bali instead of going overseas. They felt the climate to be less volatile and safer than Jakarta.
- Consider keeping a good amount of rupiah in your home, in preparation for an unexpected period of bank closures, other difficulties in obtaining the local currency, electricity disruptions, or in the event that you may find yourself home bound for a period of time. If you have to evacuate, you may also need to leave cash with your household staff to cover household expenses and salaries until your return.
- Consider the recreation needs of your family if you are homebound for an extended period. Reading materials, movies, games and other family fun can make this a time of togetherness at home. The working spouses can often work from home given there is a computer, internet connection, and other communication equipment. And yes, as one reader advised, you may also want to stock up on liquid refreshment to reduce tension levels.
- Emergency Evacuation flights organized by embassies for their citizens will most likely be one-way tickets to a nearby safe haven, usually Singapore, Bangkok or Australia. You get the bill later. Once you're at your safe haven you will mostly likely be totally on your own, paying all your own room and board and additional travel expenses. In 1998, some nations assisted their citizens with finding housing, onward flights and temporary funds ... but this should NOT be expected. In several cases the embassy 'banned' the return of their citizens for a period of time ... though you could return at your own risk on your own. Some embassy-organized flights departed from Halim airport in Jakarta and landed in military airports at the destination. Some flight arrivals were even covered by CNN !
- For those outside Indonesia when the evacuation begins, it will be very difficult to return to Jakarta to “rescue” your family. Commercial flights may not be coming in and access from the airport to the town may be difficult or dangerous. Discuss actions your spouse should take in these circumstances.
- For those expats who cannot, or choose not to participate in an evacuation of their nationals, you will be quickly isolated with many of your expat friends gone. Once they get overseas they'll be calling you and sending a flood of emails to find out what is going on!
- Travel Outside Jakarta. Always ensure that your family and employer have contact details and itineraries for any travel within and outside of Indonesia. In the event of an emergency, ensure that you contact your family/employer as soon as possible to advise them about your situation.
- Do not forget to address the very real concerns of your household staff and employees upon hearing news of your departure. They may be worried that you will not come back, wonder how they will get their salary during your absence, etc. Many companies faced serious morale problems amongst the Indonesian employees when all the expats and senior ethnic-Chinese evacuated in 1998. This “they-take-off-at-the-first-sign-of-trouble attitude” was noted and caused serious problems after the crisis.
Websites which post advisories
Safe Travel - New Zealand - https://safetravel.govt.nz/indonesia
Check your embassy's website for more information.
Additional Stories and Advice
A circular from a western embassy in Jakarta gave the following cautions to its citizens in Indonesia in 1998:
“Due to the possibility of increased tension and criminal activity arising from economic uncertainty in Indonesia, expatriates may wish to exercise prudence and common sense and to avoid demonstrations and other situations that could turn violent.”
The experience of one expat who lived through the “fall of Marcos” in the Philippines is enlightening.
“People thought that an open non-restricted ticket was a sure way out. They found, however, that once they'd braved the chaos on the streets to get the airport, that during the evacuation the national carriers were only taking their own citizens, and that tickets or reservations weren't important. For example, the Singapore Airlines flights were evacuating Singaporeans first, secondly ASEAN citizens and thirdly other citizens. Many people who thought that the most important thing to do would be to make it to the airport found an unexpected problem, there was no food at the airport to feed the many would-be evacuees. Also, that it wasn't easy in this state of emergency for foreign governments to get clearance for flights coming in to evacuate their citizens. So what did work? The best procedure was to stay in your own home and wait to be contacted by your embassy through the warden system after planes and clearance were arranged. Evacuees were told to go to the location identified by the warden where buses were on standby to take the evacuees to the airport with a military escort.”
During the emergency evacuations from Jakarta in May 1998, his advice proved to be true. Those who fled to the airport encountered long lines, difficulties in getting reservations, an absence of food and water, difficulties in parking cars, and in general total and utter panic and CHAOS! During the same time, many Indonesians who were trying to escape the chaos were robbed on the way to the airport, as criminals knew they'd be escaping with their gold and cash on hand! Those expats who waited at their homes for their embassy's call to go to a safe location and then traveled together by bus (escorted by the Indonesian military) to the military airport, found that their departure, though time consuming, was relatively organized, hassle free and safe.
Evacuation flights organized by embassies were easier to find seats on than commercial flights, yet they were often more expensive. Embassy evacuation flights are NOT commercial flights. Many departing expats encountered problems with the one suitcase/person luggage limit and found that personal pets were not accommodated. In the case that an evacuation flight cannot accommodate your pets, leave the pet in care of your household staff, and call a company like Groovy Pet Shop in Kemang or Kennel von haus Cakra in Cengkareng. They can arrange the evacuation of your pet if you have already left or alternately care for your pet at their kennel if you cannot leave the pet in your home.
“If in doubt about the security situation, don't send your children to school. The bus may turn up anyway and you may think that the school knows more than you. This is not necessarily true. You could find that your kids are stuck at school all night.” (This did happen to students at the British International School. during the May 1998 riots.) If you are concerned about your children's safety and well-being should they be stuck at school, consult with the school administration to determine what their plan is for the care and safety of stranded children.
Interesting article from our sponsor on the changes in Risk Management in Indonesia in response to recent terrorist attacks, Risk Management in Indonesia.
Security In and Around Town
Protecting Soft Targets in Indonesia
Residential Security Basics: Safety in Your Home in Indonesia
Household Security Rules
Emergency Phone Numbers
If you have other advice or experiences you'd wish to share with the community, send them to us and we'll incorporate them into the article.
Last updated September 23, 2019