Since January 2021, one hundred refugee people have been protesting in front of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) offices in Indonesia’s most infected city, Jakarta, which has at least 19,000 active Covid-19 cases as of June 16. The protesters include families with young children, single women and men from countries stricken with conflict: Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Sri Lanka. They shout the slogan: “Justice, equality and fair process for resettlement.”
“We are not afraid to die because we have already lost our future. We are sick physically and mentally. It does not matter whether corona kills us today or not, I am sure we will die suffering in this limbo.” Aziz, one of the Afghan refugee protesters replied when asked if they are afraid to get infected with Covid-19.
Protesters demand shelters with financial assistance and resettlement in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the United States. Last month, they observed Ramadan and celebrated Eid festival sleeping in small tents and using tree branches and barbed wire to hang their personal belongings. Occasionally, the locals donate some food. Most days, they have nothing to eat and drink.
The protest started with mourning their fellow refugee people who have committed suicide in Indonesia. Since the beginning of the pandemic, six refugee people have taken their own lives, including Nematullah Mohammedi who killed himself in International Organisation for Migration (IOM) accommodation in Tanjung Pinang, on March 22 this year. Adding them to the list, there have been at least thirteen refugee people who have committed suicide across Indonesia since 2014. Protestors brought some coffins to represent them and posted their photos on banners and did candle light prayers for them. Refugee protesters said it could be every refugee person’s fate if they continue to remain in limbo in Indonesia.
On May 17, an Afgan woman tried to set herself on fire at the protest, pouring herself with petrol in protest but the police and security at the building stopped her and she was saved. She is 28 years of age and has been alone in Indonesia for seven years.
“The severity and slowness of the resettlement procedure placed us under heavy pressure, depression which drove many refugee people to the edge of ending their lives because they think there’s no way out of this crisis other than taking their lives.” said Erfan Dana, an Afgan refugee advocate and a leader in Batam.
This month, on June 6, Salim, a 25 year old Afgan died due to medical neglect in Bogor, one hour drive from Jakarta. Refugee people have no right to healthcare and severely restricted access to hospital treatment. On June 14, a 43 years old Afgan named Muhammad Dawood died suffering from mental illness in Pekanbaru. He has his wife and children in Afghanistan from whom he has been separated for almost nine years.
Resettlement to a third country has never been easy. There are refugee people waiting for resettlement for more than a decade. Due to the pandemic, resettlement places to third countries have reduced or even paused indefinitely. It has become even more difficult since Australia has shut the door on refugee people in Indonesia as most refugee people’s initial destination was Australia.
In 2013, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot implemented Operation Sovereign Borders which turned refugee boats back to Indonesia. Refugee people were told that they would be resettled through UNHCR. As refugee people were awaiting resettlement through UNHCR, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that Australia would no longer resettle refugee people who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after July 2014.
In 2020, Australia resettled only 41 refugee people from Indonesia. No refugee people have been resettled from Indonesia this year according to UNHCR data. Refugee people have taken to the street to express their sufferings as they are unable to rebuild their lives in Indonesia, which denies their fundamental rights.
“Sometimes, we receive food donations from locals, but most of the time, we have nothing to eat and drink. There are many children and families with no support. Many single refugee people are going under a lot of stress every day with no activities and work. They do not receive any psychological help. We want resettlement or local integration if we are given our human rights as Indonesian,” said Hussain who lives in Kalideres refugee shelter. In Kalideres, around 250 refugee people are sheltered in an abandoned military building without running water or electricity. Most of them are now sleeping on the street at the UNHCR office to ask for resettlement as they are suffering from uncertainty of their future.
“Legally, they are just in limbo. It makes us feel very sad because we cannot give them a sustainable solution unless the government could do something,” said Firya Nadhifa, a local refugee advocate and a student majoring in international relations at Brawijaya University. She is coordinating with a local NGO, Bagi Bagi to provide food to refugee people at the protest.
Hussain Ramazan Rafit, an Afghan refugee activist in Jakarta, added that they previously protested at the Presidential office and Supreme Court, but to no avail.
Refugee people are given only two options; remain in limbo or repatriate. But the majority of refugee people in Indonesia are from the world’s most persecuted minorities: for example, Hazaras from Afghanistan, Rohingyas from Myanmar and others from war-torn countries, such as Somalia and Sudan, for whom returning to their countries is not an option as genocide, persecution and political instability are still ongoing in their countries.
Now in their fifth month of protest, many refugee people report they are being frequently intimidated and physically assaulted by security and police to disperse the protest. Refugee people hung pictures depicting the police and security forces beating refugee people in front of the UNHCR gate.
“They took all the tents, clothes and other belongings of the refugees and beat them badly and forced them to leave the place.” Said Hussain Ramazan Rateq, a Afgan refugee activist at the protest. The protesters said they were then removed from the gate. They are now protesting and sleeping on the other side of the UNHCR offices.
Refugee protesters ask Australia to resettle refugee people stranded at its gate, Indonesia. “We will continue to protest until we get a solution for our future such as resettlement to any welcoming country where we are free to work, study and live peacefully in freedom,” said one of the protesters.
JN Joniad is a Rohingya journalist and a journalism editor of the archipelago magazine and writers collective. As a university student in Myanmar, Joniad was forced to flee into exile. Now living as a refugee person in Indonesia, he contributes to film and publishing accounts of refugee people searching for a safe and durable solution.