The unbearable wait of refugees in Indonesia
Refugee men are at the end of the queue when it comes to resettlement. In Indonesia, without the right to work, days are long and endless, as they wait indefinitely for a chance for a better life.
By NATASHYA GUTIERREZ in JAKARTA | March 13, 2017
Wasted lives: The unbearable wait of refugees in Indonesia
JAKARTA, Indonesia – There is a small street in the center of Jakarta where broken men go.
They wander there, a small side street lined with boarding houses, known as kos in Indonesia, and where stalls crop up at night selling the city’s best goat fried rice. They can’t afford the rice.
The men often loiter aimlessly, or sit on the sidewalks, chatting for hours. Some of them live here – they sleep right on the very pavement. The lucky ones are able to afford a small room or a bed in a kos, a roof above their heads.
They were drawn to this area because tucked away on this street is a tiny gate – easy to miss if you don't know it's there – a side entrance to the building that houses the country’s UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office. A literal door to knock on, when they're absolutely desperate for help.
The men are not from Indonesia although they have lived here for years. They speak fluent Indonesian, but they are from faraway places – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Myanmar, among others. They came here, to the world’s 4th largest nation, through different ways. Some by boat, some by plane, using fake passports, some via long routes that saw them hop from one country to another after months at sea. They all came in hopes of survival.
Kyaw Thu Aung, a 26-year-old Rohingya, wears eyeglasses and a steady smile. His face is open and friendly, his story tragic. Aung said he arrived in Indonesia 4 months ago, after an 8-month journey from Rakhine state. From Myanmar, he crossed over to Bangladesh, then rode a boat to Thailand. From there he took another boat to Malaysia, and yet another until he arrived on the shores of Indonesia.
“We came by boat. Some children and women die so we throw body in ocean,” he said in broken English.
Aung, like many asylum seekers like him, lived normal lives back home before they were forced to flee. Aung was a student, a chemistry major, who in his words, "likes atoms and nuclear cells.”
He is here alone, young and single, like many of the men, after having lost both his parents to religious persecution.
“Here, I have no friends, only 3 friends here. My family die and I’m also single. Mother and father killed by Buddhist. I see father his head cut off,” he said, speaking in broken English. He paused for a while before continuing.
“Mother die after her home burn. Fire. Diesel. Me outside of house with my friend. Me very lucky.”
Aung knows he is fortunate to be alive, but worries about his daily survival in Indonesia, where he barely gets by, from day to day. His next UNHCR interview for refugee status is not until July 2018 – a year and 8 months since he first arrived. He does not expect any developments in his case before then.
“I have no telephone, no money. If I have money I buy food. Me thinking me go back to Malaysia because here my refugee process take so long time. In here, no help. No job.”
There are about 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Indonesia, a transit country that has opened its doors to those fleeing war, conflict and persecution. Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, which “recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries” and “lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees.”
But Indonesia, by choice, does allow refugees and asylum seekers to live on its land while waiting to get resettled to third countries – and there isn’t much else Indonesia offers them than this.
Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled. In Indonesia the number is a tad higher: 2%. Globally, there are more people displaced by war and conflict today since World War II.
Veronica Koman, an independent refugee lawyer, said Indonesian laws are rather unusual when it comes to treatment toward refugees and asylum seekers, who spend years in limbo.
“They almost don’t have any rights at all, like no right to education, right to health, right to proper housing. They just are being recognized as people who need protection,” she told Rappler. “It’s like the government acknowledges that you are a refugee but the government is not giving you protection at the same time.”
Unable to work and with nothing to do to pass their days, refugees have literally nothing to do but wait for resettlement, if and when it will ever come. Some receive money from their families in war-torn countries back home – just enough for their basic needs while they wait. Others like Aung, are homeless, and have no choice but to beg for meals. Still others go crazy from the boredom, the trauma, and the torture of poverty.
The situation is especially dire for single men, who are at the bottom of the waitlist when it comes to resettlement. The UNHCR prioritizes resettlement of refugees with special needs – such as women at risk, children and adolescents, refugees with medical needs, the elderly, and families – over single men.
One of these men, Ali Reza, 37, from Afghanistan, has been in Indonesia for almost 5 years. He wears tattered clothing, which he said, was donated by church groups.
“Eight months ago my father and mother supported me, gave me money. But they were killed by the Taliban. After this I stayed on the streets. If no help, I can’t do anything. Who will care for me? Who will support me? Here, if there’s permission for work, for job, no problem for us. But none,” he said.
Reza now lives with 16 other refugee men in a flimsy two-story shack in a slum area in Jakarta, after a good samaritan took pity on them. Their Indonesian sponsor pays for their shelter, but they must find ways to pay for their own food.
The full-grown men are forced to sleep next to each other on the floor, crammed into a small space in the humid, summer heat. The uncertainty of the wait and their conditions proved too much for one of Reza’s roommates. Reza gestures to a tall, Afghan man in his late 20s.
“My friend talks to himself, we don’t understand what he says. He sleeps all day but before he wasn't like that. Sometimes he cries," he said. "He's lost his mind."
'We're in a black hole'
The frustrations of these men came to a boil on Monday, February 6, 2017, when they protested in front of the UNHCR office in Indonesia’s capital.
Dozens of refugees and asylum seekers – all men – gathered together, pleading for their resettlement to be accelerated. They carried various signs that read, “We want justice” or “We deserve to be resettled as soon as possible.”
“We are not terrorists, we have families, we are human,” they chanted over and over, in an attempt to get a UNHCR official to come down and answer their questions.
Mohammad Akbar, 28, from Afghanistan, explained that all they wanted was someone “to talk to us, to explain what is going on.”
“Why are we not being processed? Only families are going. I don’t know how they select them. By face? By name? It’s confusing for everybody. That is why we are doing this demonstration to get an answer,” he said.
He also questioned why resettlement could not be done in chronological order, adding he has been in Indonesia since 2013, but has seen others come and go. He emphasized that many of them do not care which country they get resettled to – and are even happy to stay here – as long as they are able to work.
“We want anywhere where there is a job and a future. There’s no future here. It’s not good. We’re in a black hole. If we go back to our country we will be slaughtered, and in here we can’t do nothing,” he said. “We don’t know anything about our process. We need somebody to give us an answer and tell us what is going on.”
Another refugee from Afghanistan who only wanted to be identified as Mahdi, said they respect the UNHCR's policies but felt the agency was not helping them with their day-to-day needs.
"We didn't do nothing wrong. It is not our fault we are here. We were forced to leave. If I could go home, I would," he said. "I hope they can at least help us eat."
Eventually, the UNHCR invited representatives from the refugees to come up to the office to meet with case officers. But the representatives did not like what they heard. They were told that the UNHCR has no control over when they could be resettled, and that they could not tell them how many more years they needed to wait. So the refugees came back again to protest the day after.
It was not until February 8, after 3 full days of demonstrations, when the refugees – who have a right to protest, as long as they leave by sundown according to Indonesian law – realized their actions were in vain.
That day, Koman came to the rally and advised the men of the risks of protesting. She warned that if they were arrested by authorities for blocking the building’s gates (the UNHCR office is located within a building shared with other companies and organizations), their chances for resettlement would go down to zero as no 3rd country would accept anyone with a criminal record. She explained that they were lucky to be able to roam around and not be confined in government detention centers, unlike other refugees.
And she told them that even if they came back every day for a year, their resettlement was not in the hands of the UNHCR.
“I came here because I feel like I need to tell the refugees who are some of my clients that it’s useless to be here,” she told Rappler.
“Demonstrations for the past 3 days in front of UNHCR, I think it will not be helpful at all. What the protesters are demanding is resettlement while the resettlement process all depends on the country of resettlement not the UNHCR. UNHCR can have recommendations, ‘Hey these are the people that need resettlement.' But then in the end it’s the countries of resettlement that decide, not anyone else.”
She said she could only tell the men the reality of the situation, that about 65 million people around the world, like them, are waiting for a new life. “I told them, I know it’s heartbreaking. There’s nothing else to say but please be patient, please be patient.”
That night, the men left, discouraged and defeated, the realization dawning on them that waiting, once again, was the only thing they could do.
The numbers are not on their side.
Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled. In Indonesia the number is a tad higher: 2%. Globally, there are more people displaced by war and conflict today since World War II. And with migration policies tightening in many third countries like the United States, Australia, and nations in Europe, the wait may prove to be even longer in the coming years.
Despite requests, the UNHCR did not grant Rappler an interview, but instead released a statement on February 7.
"We can understand the frustrations that refugees may feel. First of all, what's important is that refugees can have a safe place to be. And UNHCR is grateful that the Indonesian Government welcomes them in the country,” the statement said.
“With governments, we also work to find longer term/comprehensive solutions for refugees. Resettlement is only one among a range of solutions for refugees. The other solutions include voluntary return (when safe and possible), and helping family reunification. The solution will depend on individual circumstances.”
The statement also emphasized that “resettlement is not a refugee's right and it is at the discretion of the resettlement countries” and “is only available to a small number of refugees worldwide.”
Although factual, the refugees Rappler talked to felt the statement was “unhelpful” and “insensitive.” Koman, however, said she feels for UNHCR, which is underfunded and has its hands tied.
“UNHCR here is an international body and their presence here is under the blessing of the Indonesian government. So if at anytime the Indonesian government says 'you intervene too much, you need to get out of my country,' that’s it. UNHCR will be gone and there will be no protection whatsoever for refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia,” she said, adding Indonesia's UNHCR is already among the best in the region.
“That’s why UNHCR is doing their best and they can’t criticize the government too much, they’re doing as much as they can.”
The Indonesian government for its part, has taken a small step in the right direction. On December 31, 2016, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a presidential decree outlining how the government should treat refugees and asylum seekers.
The decree came after a controversial incident in Aceh in June, when a boat filled with 44 Sri Lankan asylum seekers headed for Australia washed up on Indonesian shore. The local government refused to let them disembark for almost a week, arguing they had no proper documentation.
The presidential decree is the first legal document from the government that recognizes refugees and asylum seekers as different from illegal immigrants. It details which government institutions are responsible for managing refugees, and dictates that local governments are in charge of providing for basic needs for asylym seekers in the initial days of their arrival.
But civil society argues the decree is still far from ideal, and simply formalizes the process that is already in place. It also criticized the decree’s mandate that all refugees and asylum seekers must be held in detention centers. Additionally, the decree does not grant refugees and asylum seekers the right to work or education – which activists consider as among the most pressing issues.
It will take a while before all the elements of the decree can be properly executed. The Directorate General of Immigration, which falls under the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, is one of several government offices tasked with handling refugees and asylum seekers.
“We want anywhere where there is a job and a future. There’s no future here. It’s not good. We’re in a black hole. If we go back to our country we will be slaughtered."
Agung Sampurno, the department’s spokesperson, admitted there is still a lot of harmonizing to be done among ministries. He told Rappler that due to the mandate that refugees must stay in detention centers, there is a need for their department to build more – not just due to the shortage in the current number of centers, but also because existing centers are not suitable for refugees, having been built for illegal immigrants in the first place.
Currently, Sampurno said a few thousand refugees stay in 17 detention centers and shelters around the country.
“According to our regulation, the Immigration Act, the detention center is not for refugees. It is for illegal immigrants who are going to get sent back, people who are safe in their original country. This detention center is not built for refugees,” he said.
Sampurno said there would need to be adjustments in the design of detention centers for long-term tenants like refugees, since unlike illegal immigrants whom they deport, “only God will know how long [refugees] will stay here.”
Budget, of course, is another issue. He said funding would have to come from the UNHCR, which is already finding it difficult to obtain resources to meet its needs.
Aside from the time it will take to provide refugees adequate housing, Sampurno also said it is unlikely they will be allowed to work anytime soon by the government.
He said that unlike Malaysia – where authorities turn a blind eye to refugees and asylum seekers who work so they can feed themselves – Indonesia does not allow the same practice, because it takes away from their citizens.
“I think this is a big step, to allow them to work,” he said. “We can give protection for the refugees, we accept them to come here… but talking about giving them work is another thing.”
He said that as it is, refugees already have significant social impact on the country's resources, upon their arrival in Indonesia.
“How can we give them a nice place to stay and at the same time, our people still in some areas don’t have proper housing or even eat 3 times a day? So I think it’s quite difficult, but it isn’t our decision to make [to let them work]. It’s up to our legislation to make that decision.”
Koman, too, is pessimistic that the right to work will be granted anytime soon, pointing out that here, refugees are arrested by immigration officers, even for informal work like selling souvenirs on the roadside.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” she said.
There is a distinct, palpable difference between those who have been waiting about a year or two, between those who have been here for 4 or 5 years. The longer they stay, their faces grow worn, their bodies weary, the hope sucked out of them methodically, year by year.
Aung regrets coming to Indonesia. He dreams of riding a boat again to return to Malaysia. There, he said, at least he can work. Here, he sometimes eats only once every two days.
He says a trip back to Malaysia would cost $225 – money he doesn't have. He said he is willing to risk his life again at sea if it means there is a chance he will make it to Malaysia. He is still thinking of alternative ways to escape to a better life. But he is losing hope.
Reza, who has been in Indonesia much longer than Aung, is visibly more weathered. His eyes are hollow, and empty, and he often needs a break from our conversations because he says he feels tired and unwell.
He talks about two friends he lost – both Afghan men – who fell ill but did not have money to seek medical help. Both died, he said. One was buried here, the other was flown back to Afghanistan and received by his grieving family. Reza said he fled Afghanistan and came to Indonesia in hopes of starting a new life elsewhere, not knowing he would be stuck here for half a decade.
He dreamt of sending money back to his family, he said, like many of the men who made the life-changing decision to leave their homes. But now, with his parents dead, and his years wasted, he said, he does not know how much longer he can wait. He wonders if he too, will die in Indonesia.
“At home, the Taliban kill us,” he said. “Here, they kill us by time.” – Rappler.com