In­done­sia’s stranded refugees lose hope

Des­per­ate and liv­ing on streets, asy­lum seek­ers dream of be­ing de­tained

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Kate Lamb Jakarta Ben Do­herty

For nearly two months, Farid At­taie has been sleep­ing on the foot­path out­side an im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­tre in Kalid­eres, West Jakarta, with his par­ents, five sib­lings, and an­other Hazara fam­ily of three from Afghanistan.

Less than 20 me­tres from where they sleep, the gates of the full-tothe-brim de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity are topped with spi­rals of barbed wire de­signed to stop peo­ple from get­ting out.

But At­taie and more than 300 home­less asy­lum seek­ers and refugees camped out on the street in makeshift tents of tar­pau­lin and bam­boo are try­ing to do the op­po­site. They want to get in. Af­ter years in limbo in In­done­sia this is the end of the line – their money has run out and they have nowhere to go.

In the past asy­lum seek­ers would ar­rive in In­done­sia from coun­tries such as Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Somalia and Iraq, hop­ing to board a boat to Aus­tralia. But only a hand­ful of boats have made it to Aus­tralian shores in the past three and a half years, and the few asy­lum seek­ers who have reached Aus­tralia have found them­selves ex­iled – again – to lan­guish in­def­i­nitely in Nauru and Pa­pua New Guinea.

Refugees here are now hop­ing to be ap­proved for third-coun­try re­set­tle­ment. But glob­ally each year, less than 1% of refugees get that chance.

For the 13,885 asy­lum seek­ers and refugees in In­done­sia, the walls have been steadily clos­ing in. In re­cent months the United Na­tions high com­mis­sioner for refugees has told them they are un­likely to ever be re­set­tled.

“We don’t know for how many years we will be here,” says At­taie, 20, as motorbikes and cars spray dust and fumes into his road­side shel­ter. “Last month UNHCR said … maybe you will be here for al­ways.”

At­taie’s fam­ily fled their home­land af­ter his el­dest brother was shot dead by in­sur­gents last year. Af­ter 10 months in In­done­sia their money has gone.

Ex­cep­tional cases – sin­gle moth­ers, sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors or the phys­i­cally and men­tally im­paired – will be given pri­or­ity. For the rest, life in abeyance is tak­ing its toll.

In de­ten­tion cen­tres in Java, Su­ma­tra and Kal­i­man­tan there have been reg­u­lar protests this year, while re­ports of de­pres­sion and re­quests for psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sis­tance are on the rise. A young Afghan asy­lum seeker com­mit­ted sui­cide here last month, re­port­edly af­ter hear­ing the news that re­set­tle­ment would likely never come.

In Kalid­eres the des­per­a­tion is pal­pa­ble. The street is a string of hor­ror sto­ries. “In the morn­ing they come with guns – my fam­ily killed,” says Muham­mad Al Amien, 17, from Dar­fur, in Su­dan. “I hid in the school.”

Liv­ing on the street that lines the de­ten­tion cen­tre, more than 300 asy­lum seek­ers and refugees are re­liant on char­ity for wa­ter and food. Get­ting in­side the cen­tre would mean a roof over their heads and reg­u­lar meals.

Out­side, bat­tling poor san­i­ta­tion, crip­pling heat and mon­soonal rain, peo­ple are get­ting sick. Nurs­ing his one-and-a-half-year-old son, a Hazara fa­ther, Salim Hussini, points to a fresh spray of sca­bies on the boy’s leg. “My wife is sick and now my son is sick,” he says. “But I fin­ished my money – ev­ery­thing – so I have to come here.”

Hus­sain Ba­davi, a 22-year-old Ira­nian refugee who has been in In­done­sia for five years – 20 months of which was spent in de­ten­tion in Kalid­eres be­fore he was moved into com­mu­nity hous­ing – vis­its ev­ery few days to check on the asy­lum seek­ers’ health.

With the sup­port of an In­done­sian phi­lan­thropist, Ba­davi as­sists those need­ing med­i­cal treat­ment. In re­cent weeks he has helped asy­lum seek­ers suf­fer­ing ap­pen­dici­tis, di­a­betes, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and in­fluenza, and in­ter­vened in the case of Ab­dul Fatah, a young Ye­meni man with a rare ge­netic skin dis­ease called epi­der­mol­y­sis bul­losa. The ema­ci­ated 21-year-old was found on the streets with blis­ters, scabs and le­sions cov­er­ing his body.

In re­cent weeks things have gone from bad to worse. The Aus­tralian Depart­ment for Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion has pulled fund­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Mi­gra­tion to sup­port any new ar­rivals in In­done­sia. The DIBP is the IOM’s prin­ci­pal fun­der in In­done­sia, so Can­berra’s dik­tat means the or­gan­i­sa­tion can no longer sup­port any new asy­lum seek­ers, de­spite their con­tin­u­ing ar­rival.

Even be­fore Aus­tralia shut its borders, and US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in­tro­duced tighter im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies, re­set­tle­ment for refugees in In­done­sia could take up to a decade. Now it looks like most could be stuck in In­done­sia for ever.

Kate Lamb

Shat­tered dreams … Sharmila At­taie (above), aged 10, lives with her fam­ily out­side the Kalid­eres cen­tre; (right) Ab­dul Fatah

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