MiNDFOOD (New Zealand)


We often hear of the world’s refugee crisis but what is life really like for those who have fled their homes – only to languish at the bottom of resettleme­nt queues?


In July 2013, Australia’s thenPrime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced a zero-tolerance approach towards the so-called ‘boat people’ – asylum seekers from the Middle East, Sri Lanka and North Africa, who came to Australian shores in leaky boats from Indonesia. “From now, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” Rudd said at the time.

Since then, more than 4,000 asylum seekers have decided to test Australia’s resolve – and every last one of them has been shipped to offshore processing camps on the South Pacific island of Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Some 900 people still remain there to this day, their tragic stories repeated endlessly in the press.

But relatively little is known about the 14,000 asylum seekers who were passing through Indonesia en route to Australia in 2013 – many of whom have now been stuck in Indonesia for up to seven years. Too scared to return home, languishin­g at the bottom of refugee resettleme­nt queues that barely move,

they are all lost in limbo – forgotten victims of the worst global refugee crisis since World War II.

Until three years ago, asylum seekers in Indonesia were detained en masse at immigratio­n detention centres. An Indonesian presidenti­al decree in 2016 saw the majority released into the community – but without any working rights or government support, it made beggars of the lot of them. Their only official assistance comes from housing and healthcare programmes delivered by the UN’s Internatio­nal Organizati­on for Migration (IOM), whose operations in Indonesia are funded by Australia. Last year, the Australian government gave the IOM in Indonesia $40 million – a fraction of the $5 billion it’s spent over the past five years maintainin­g its two offshore detention centres.

In March of 2018, Australia announced that the IOM would have to tighten its belt even further because Australia would no longer assist newly arrived asylum seekers in Indonesia. Combined with IMO budget shortfalls, the developmen­t has left 5,500 refugees in Indonesia to fend for themselves.

I met some of them – a group of 50-odd Afghan asylum seekers living on the street in front of the Kalideres Detention Centre in West Jakarta. They sleep under a large, nomadic-style tent made of old tarpaulin sheets that backs onto an open sewer. There is garbage everywhere, the air reeks of diesel, and the traffic noise is ear-splittingl­y loud.


“We came here because in Afghanista­n our bodies are in danger because we are Hazara minority,” explains Parisi Mohammadi – a 12-year-old girl who’s lived in Indonesia for two years now. “The Taliban always try to kill us … They hate us because we are different.”

Parisi isn’t too pleased with her surroundin­gs – but what she laments most is the fact she can’t go to school. “I want to go to school so I can reach my future. I’d like to be a pilot. But my family has no money,” she says.

Neverthele­ss, her father Mahmud insists that he made the right decision bringing his young family to Indonesia.

“It’s better here because there is no war and no-one is trying to kill us,” he says. “But things are really bad. Many of us have gotten really sick here with skin infections, and sometimes snakes come into our tent at night. It’s really hot and when it rains there’s no –”

At that moment, a woman sitting under the tent screams and leaps to her feet. Another dozen women follow suit, dashing out into the street. “Snake!” says Parisi, pulling me back as the men begin dismantlin­g the plastic sheeting and wooden pallets on the floor. Soon, the intruder is found. It’s not a snake

“Once I found a job, but the police caught me. When they saw I was a refugee, they told me I had to stop.”


but a large black rat, which runs off into the sewer and disappears with a stomach-churning plop.

When the commotion dies down I meet Barakat Ali, a 20-year-old Hazara man living in Indonesia since 2015. “A few months ago one of our friends was bitten by a snake,” he says. “We took him to hospital. They wanted 600,000 rupiahs [NZ$65] to treat him. It was a lot of money for us, but we collected a little from everyone and gave it to the hospital so they could help him.”

Ali says his father, who worked as a translator for the UN in Afghanista­n, decided to flee Afghanista­n after the Taliban tried to kill him. “We didn’t know anything about Indonesia at the time, but we met smugglers who told us it was a good place,” he tells me.


Like Mahmud, Ali also says his life in Jakarta is better than it was at home. “We are happy because there are no bomb blasts or terrorist groups here,” he says. “But on the other hand, we’re not allowed to work or study. We do nothing all day, only exist. It’s killing us slowly, killing our hearts, killing us from the inside. We have no money for water, for food, for anything. Everyone here is stressed thinking about their future. Many have mental problems. No-one helps us … Only the local people give us food sometimes. If it wasn’t for them, we would starve.”

Ali says he wants to live like “all other human beings around the world, in a home” – somewhere he can “go to school, get a job and buy a car.” He says he wants to be a web designer, and he doesn’t mind which country it happens in. “It could be in Indonesia if they gave us permission to work and study. Then at least we could have a chance.”

Further down the road, I meet three Somali men in their twenties who live nearby in IOM housing. Unlike the Afghanis, they are well dressed and their hair is neatly cut, and they carry themselves with an air of dignity. They all speak some English, but only one of them – Hassan Alinoor, 29, who fled his home after his father was killed in a terrorist attack seven years ago – speaks it fluently.

“I caught a plane to Indonesia because one of my friends told me it was possible to get a boat from here to Australia,” he says. “In 2013 I nearly made it. I was on the smuggler’s boat about to take off from the beach when the Indonesian police arrived and stopped us. A few weeks later [the] prime minister said Australia will never accept people who come by boat from Indonesia. Brother, I have been here ever since.”

Alinoor says he is grateful to the Australian government for financing IOM housing in Indonesia, but that he’s never stopped dreaming about completing his trip. “I want to tell the people in Australia that if you let me in I will work hard and make a better life for myself,” he explains. “It’s not possible here because they don’t allow us to work. Once I found a job as a furniture removalist, but the police caught me and said, ‘give me your ID card’. When they saw I was a refugee, they told me I had to stop.”

Julia Zajkowski, a senior protection officer with the United Nations High Commission­er for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta, says Indonesia treats refugees better than most. “In many ways, Indonesia is a model, a very good example for other countries in Southeast Asia,” she says.

Dr Antje Missbach, a lecturer of anthropolo­gy at Melbourne’s Monash University, who is researchin­g what it is like to be a refugee caught in limbo, agrees with Zajkowski – to a degree.

“Indonesia has allowed refugees to live there for all these years, and we can understand this to be hospitalit­y. They never forcibly send people back to a country at war, or where those people could be persecuted,” she says.

“But … they’ve never invested any money to care for them – they simply tolerate their presence. The funding for their housing and medical care has always come from Australia. But now, Australia’s funding is dribbling out. That’s leading to a [rise] in prostituti­on – especially among the young.”


But Dr Missbach points out that the tent community outside the Kalideres Detention Centre may not be what it seems. “What I heard is that quite a few of them have been given decrepit housing in the area, and they take turns sleeping in the tent,” she says.

“Homelessne­ss is a problem among asylum seekers in Indonesia – but to me, this looks more like political action. They’re maintainin­g a presence outside the biggest immigratio­n detention centre in Jakarta because they believe it will increase their chances of being resettled in a third country. There is another group outside the UNHCR building in Jakarta doing exactly the same thing. They want to be seen – they don’t want to be forgotten. They want to send a message to the world.”

IOM Indonesia’s Chief of Mission, Dejan Micevski, says that he has also heard these rumours. “We are hearing the same stories – that refugees come and go … that they take turns between the tent and nearby hotels. We’ve heard that some people are being bullied into staying there by others in the group to make a political statement,” he says.

“Still, it’s never easy seeing families living on the pavement. Even if they are taking shifts, it’s heartbreak­ing. It’s not a place where any child should be, which is why we are advocating for Indonesia to open its public schools to refugee children. And we have already had breakthrou­gh success. One in three school-age children under our care in Indonesia is now enrolled in school … It shows the Indonesian government is being supportive.”

But will they have the right to earn a living when they graduate? Or, like their parents, will they be forced to subsist on charity and whatever poorly paid work the black market provides? Micevski is hopeful. “We are working with stakeholde­rs to find a practical solution. But it will depend upon the government,” he says.

And that’s the crux of the problem. With rising unemployme­nt and 10 per cent of Indonesia’s population – around 26 million people – still living below the poverty line, the political will required to give refugees working rights does not currently exist in Indonesia. And it will not become manifest anytime soon, according to Dr Missbach.

“Refugees will integrate culturally, but they won’t have the right to work. That’s the one thing the Indonesian government is absolutely unwilling to compromise about,” she says. “There are those who will find work online or in restaurant­s – but they will always run the risk of being punished, or taken into custody. For now and the foreseeabl­e future, they’ll have to exist as second-class citizens.”

 ??  ?? Clockwise from above: A 12-year-old girl living in the tent; The asylum seekers’ tent backs onto a rubbish pit and open sewer; Refugee children face an uncertain future.
Clockwise from above: A 12-year-old girl living in the tent; The asylum seekers’ tent backs onto a rubbish pit and open sewer; Refugee children face an uncertain future.
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