Indonesia’s stranded refugees lose hope
Desperate and living on streets, asylum seekers dream of being detained
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.
Shattered dreams … Sharmila Attaie (above), aged 10, lives with her family outside the Kalideres centre; (right) Abdul Fatah