“I’m asking from the Human Rights, UNHCR office Jakarta and host countries that for how long I should stay here? You are keeping me here and my children are begging for a loaf of bread in Afghanistan. What is our crime?” said Ali an Afghan refugee protester in Pekanbaru, Indonesia.
Refugee people have been protesting for the last seven years due to uncertainty of their futures. They are stranded for nearly a decade and want from the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) to accelerate their case process and get resettlement to a third country. I analyse the strategies, mindset, challenges and achievement of the refugee protests in Pekanbaru.
After the collapse of the Afghan government on 15 August 2021, the world sent their troops to Kabul Airport to evacuate the people of Afghanistan. But Afghan families are still in danger. Most of them were displaced, hidden somewhere and asking for help.
Protesters gathered in front of Pekanbaru governor on 11 October, 2021, asking for help and pushing the UNHCR Jakarta to accelerate the resettlement process. Police and authorities told them, you came to the wrong address, we are not in charge of your concern.
The representatives of refugees convinced them to listen to their voices. The Pekanbaru governor agreed and wanted to go to their shelters and will have a meeting with UNHCR, IOM, immigration office plus representatives of refugees next week. But that meeting had never happened. Meanwhile, the patience of refugees ran out and started their protest in front of their shelter on the street.
As a consequence of ignoring their willingness and demanding their rights by authorities, on 26 October they started their peaceful demonstration in front of UNHCR office Pekanbaru again.
There were approximately six-hundred-and-fifty refugees who were asking for their rights. But, the Indonesian police first informed them that the UNHCR officers are not present in their office. Later on, at four pm the police attempted to send protesters home by force, but the refugee people resisted and the police stopped trying to send them home.
After that, at five pm the police said you can send ten representatives to discuss with UNHCR staff, but the people did not accept and said UNHCR must talk to the people in person. Finally, refugees’ requests were not accepted and they slept that night there.
In the morning of 27 October, the people gathered more and stronger. They shouted: “UNHCR; UNHCR! PROCESS; PROCESS!” and asked from host countries like Canada, America and Australia with “CANADA; CANADA! HELP US; HELP US!”
They sent dozens of emails and demonstrated many times in front of the UNHCR office in Pekanbaru. But they never replied to them.
As a result, on 13 November 2021 they started a sit-down strike in front of the UNHCR office in Pekanbaru until 24 December 2021. There were around three-hundred-and fifty-refugees, mostly Afghan men who spent forty-one days there.
When the rain came during the night, they slept in front of the stores. While they were there, every group had friends to cook and sent it to them. Each group had one person to cook inside their shelter and sent it via online car delivery.
On 16 November the police had violence, destroyed and cleaned out refugee tents to disperse them and stop their demonstration. But they resisted for their rights, then the police warned them that they had two options: stay there and the police will force them to go home or to go in front of the police office for three days and they will ask the UNHCR to reply to your requests. Then the refugees agreed and slept for three days outside the police office but they did not get any clear answer from them. As a result of this, they returned back to the front of the UNHCR office and started their sit-down strike again.
Due to carelessness and not paying enough attention by the UNHCR and IOM, on 30 November, 2021, Ahmad Shah, twenty-two years, an Afghan refugee who came in 2016 burned himself in front of the UNHCR office in Medan city. “He had extremely worse depression, felt pain on his body specially on his back. Although he visited to psychologist his mental illness became worse and worse,” said Mohammad Juma Mohseni, Afghan refugees representative. According to Mohseni, he took some petrol with a lighter and went in front of UNHCR office. There were four Afghan men refugees attempted to save him but he warned them not close to him. Finally, he burned himself and the guards of UNHCR building took off the fire of his body.
Saturday, 2 December was the worst and most painful day for the refugee community in Pekanbaru. They did not sleep yet to hear that twelve people were going to sewing their lips. It was heartbreaking and sad news for people.
Four refugees Khudadad Ghulami, Nowrooz Ali Mohibby, Latif, and Buman Ali had sewn their lips and started their hunger strike to show the world what is going on in Indonesia. Their messages are not only for UNHCR but it is for the world and human rights as well. They said we are exhausted and we don’t have another choice, this is the only way that the world can hear our voice.
Khudadad, an Afghan refugee, came to Indonesia in 2015. He registered in the Jakarta office of the UNHCR, then came to Pekanbaru. Before he started his hunger strike on 10 October, 2021 he described his pain, worries, and problems in Persian and Bahasa Indonesia in a video clip. He asked the President of Indonesia, host countries, and human rights organizations for help.
He added that we have always attempted to raise our poor voice to the world. But the UNHCR and Indonesian government are still silent. He said the refugees do not practice their basic human rights; cannot pursue their education, seek jobs, buy a SIM Card, and travel anywhere.
He had a nail and a string on his hand and didn’t want to encourage the fellow friend to sewing his lips. He added the pain of nails is not as worse as losing your member of your dearest family and hope.
The UNHCR responded through an official letter on 19 November to the head of Kesbangpol police. They are saying they do not have the authorities to resettle refugees in a third country. On the other hand, resettlement is not a right to ask for, it is a gift from resettlement countries, globally less than one percent of the world refugees will benefit from this gift each year.
To this letter the refugees community did not accept and replied through another letter on 21 November: “We have got the same answer by UNHCR Pekanbaru previously. UNHCR Indonesia has not paid enough attention to our demands.”
The refugees feel they are forgotten and nearly going to drown. Ten years is too long, far from their families and spent without any fundamental human rights.
Refugees believe there is no reason to wait for the UNHCR to come and check their situation but to protest their rights to find a way to hear the pain and need, seeing the reaction of local and international people to understand their facts motivates them to stick to protest.
They trust the UNHCR organization that will resettle them in a third country. In 2013 The UNHCR Jakarta told the refugees that do not put their life at risk, it means at that time the refugees went to Australia by boat and after they closed their borders, the UNHCR told them to be patient and the UN will resettle them to other countries.
Protesting is the only way to come out on the street and ask the world to find them and hear their voices.
Due to the long waiting, uncertain future, hopeless and worse condition, there are lots of cases where refugees visited the psychiatrist and psychologist to heal their problems. For instance, Mahdi and Reza Afghan refugees use antidepressants pills every night, the nurse of IOM brings and gives them only 2 pills per night. They said it can reduce our pain temporarily but our problem is further on.
For refugee people it is difficult to find a good psychologist with more experience. The psychologist have knowledge in Bahasa Indonesia and hard for them to speak in English fluently. On the other hand, the patients’ interpreters do not know anything about the terminology of psychology. So, mostly they misunderstand what the psychologist advise them.
Later on, on January 15th, Sayeed Nadir Balkhi, an Afghan refugee, ended his life in his bathroom in Pekanbaru. He was thirty-five years old and has five children all under twelve years.
“After the dinner he washed his new motorbike and seemed happy, then he vanished for twenty minutes after that, his wife found him in his bathroom.” Said Ahmadi, representative of the community. The reason why he committed suicide has not been cleared yet but his friends said he was taking antidepressants pills for the last two years.
To rescue them from this limbo and for their futures, they are demonstrating across Indonesia to ask the world to help them. Their goal is to take the attention of relevant authorities about refugees who have been stuck there for almost a decade, the host countries, the human rights office, the UNHCR and the European Union to find a solution.
The first demonstration in Pekanbaru was held in October 2015. One-hundred-and-twenty refugee people had a hunger-strike for the aim of their resettlement and to take the attention of the UNHCR. It took two week and dozens of them went to the hospital. As a result of this the UNHCR Jakarta opened an official office in Pekanbaru, it has been a positive step that the refugee people shared directly their concerns to the UNHCR staffs and they have visited the shelters of refugees as well. This office reviewed the cases and thirteen refugee children under eighteen years of age resettled in third countries.
It’s crystal clear that it will take a long process to gain their goals but they hope that one day their voice will be heard by some authorities. For example, in the past few months, only Amnesty International Indonesia and Nahdlatul Ulama a non-government organization asked the Indonesian government and the UNHCR office Jakarta to consider the condition of refugees and find a better solution for them.
Beside the demonstration, refugees in Indonesia had launched a multi hashtag campaign on social media particularly on Twitter. The first campaign was on 26 July 2021 with the hashtag of #HelpRefugeesinIndonesia. The second campaign was on 19 August 2021 with the hashtag of #ResettleAfghanRefugeesFromIndonesia. The third one was on 14 December 2021 with the hashtag of #EndTo10YearsInLimbo.
This is the feedback of that campaign which heard the voice of refugees by a Canadian senator, Senator Mobina Jaffer. On 15 December 2021 she said I have heard your voice and asked the refugees to contact her. Then the refugees has sent their concern via a letter to her.
Another campaign was held on 9 January, 2022 with the hashtag of #HelpRefugees_Indonesia. All the refugees gathered together inside their shelters for the whole 24 hours and have tweeted in three languages English, Bahasa Indonesia and Persian. According to statistics, 54.2% of people tweeted in English. In addition, 85.4% participants were male and 14.6% were female. The participants were from several countries but most of them were from Indonesia and USA. This is the final result of the refugees campaign on Twitter:
Beside campaigning on Twitter the refugees have a petition to UNHCR in Indonesia and Filippo Grandi: the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees. They shared it with everyone to sign: https://www.change.org/p/filippo-grandi-help-refugees-in-indonesia-get-resettled?signed=true
The latest campaign on Twitter was held on 17 April 2022. It started at ten pm Jakarta time with the hashtag of #RescueAfgRefugees_Indonesia.
The refugees have attempted many ways to take the attention of some authorities and organizations who directly work for refugees. Nowadays, social media is more powerful and everybody is active on it. The refugees had lots of campaigns on it. They had many storm comments on Facebook, Instagram and the most effective was on Twitter. Their message is clear: they are exhausted from living in uncertain situations, and need more attention to end 10 years in limbo. They deserve to resettle in a third country immediately.
To conclude this text, since the refugees have started protesting in Pekanbaru only a few families and single men have received phone calls from UNHCR Jakarta which informed them that they will resettle in a third country. Refugees all over Indonesia are so exhausted, hopeless for their future, and worried about their families in Afghanistan. They feel they are forgotten and no one cares about them. They don’t have any other alternative.
They have a strong desire to fight and demonstrate for their rights, till they receive any positive response from the UNHCR or host countries.
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Kasra Frozan is a Hazara writer from Afghanistan. He is a human rights activist, alumni of Kabul University and an interpreter for refugees in Indonesia.