“The system created for refugees in Indonesia is taking our lives. We lost two of our fellow refugees in one day. In Afghanistan, we lose our lives. In here, we lose our lives. We are not safe mentally and physically here.” Mohammad Amin, an Afghan refugee, stranded in Indonesia for seven years, said protesting at the UNHCR office on 15th January in Makassar city, Indonesia.
Sayed Nadir, a Thirty-five-year-old Hazara refugee, took his own life at Wisma Indah (his refugee accommodation) in Pekanbaru city. He was a husband and a father of five young children. The family arrived in Indonesia in 2016 and has since waited for resettlement to a third country. As Nadir had not seen any signs of hope, he began to suffer mentally, worrying for his family. Over the years, his mental health worsened as there is no psychological support available for refugees in Indonesia. His friends and family found him dead in the bathroom in the evening on 5 January 2022.
“Everyone is suffering from a mental problem here. Even the children are growing up witnessing the horror of the refugees’ situation. Also, because there is no school for them, they become vulnerable to mental health. I can see that Sayed’s children are experiencing a lot of stress and depression after losing their fathers. I am afraid about their future now,” said eighteen-year-old Farishta Amiri, who lived in the same accommodation as Sayed.
“It has now been fifteen refugees who have committed suicide in Indonesia since 2014 and many have more have attempted, and fourteen of whom have been Hazara refugees,” said Asadullah Amiri, a refugee activist in Makassar.
Refugees in Pekanbaru added that there is zero psychological support available for refugees and described their situations in Indonesia as open prisons. Refugees are not allowed to work or take up casual work to make a living and are denied access to public schools, universities, and government healthcare services.
IOM (International Organization for Migration) provides limited healthcare to refugees sheltered in Australian funded IOM accommodations. This support is not easily accessible to them. Refugees need to undergo a long process to receive this medical assistance. They need to visit a local clinic for a recommendation letter and write a request letter for medication; then, they put them in the mailbox. IOM’s staff collect them and send a hospital recommendation letter to refugees’ patients.
Amiri reports that this whole procedure could take up to one month. “By the time refugees receive help, their situation worsens.” He added many have died as a result including two of his fellow refugees who passed away due to a lack of medical care in Makassar city on 15 January 2022.
Thirty-year-old Latif Sharifi was suffering from health complications. He did not receive proper and timely medication, which, over time, damaged both his kidneys, and he died at the hospital. On the same night, while his friends were mourning for him, Asmatullah Nazari, a Thirty-two-year-old Hazara man, suddenly fell unconscious. His friend rushed him to the hospital, but he passed away along the way.
His friends believe that Nazari was suffering from health complications. “Because we do not receive regular check-ups, we do not know what they might be suffering from. The doctor did not give us a clear explanation of his death.” They added that several uncounted numbers of others have died due to medical and psychological neglect.
“It is a humanitarian crisis that refugees are facing in Indonesia. They are dying because of anxiety, depression, and mentally worrying that they are trapped in this limbo with no certainty of their future and lack of rights,” Amiri added.
Refugees in Indonesia have been protesting off and on against the indefinite limbo and Australia’s deterrent policies since 2014. They demand resettlement to third countries such as the USA and Canada.
In 2013, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot implemented Operation Sovereign Borders. Refugees were told that Australia would eventually take them if they remained in IOM accommodations and did not take a boat journey to Australia. The refugees patiently waited to be accepted into Australia until Australia announced in 2014 that it would no longer resettle refugees from Indonesia.
Refugees then broke their silence and began protesting this hypocrisy from Australia at the UNHCR and IOM offices across Indonesia.
The movement has recently intensified, campaigning to call Australia and the international community to end ten years in limbo with the popularized hashtag on Twitter: #HelpRefugee_Indonesia. But to no avail. The international community hardly hears their cries. This continuous neglect has further deteriorated their situation with Indonesian authorities violently attacking their protest.
On January 17th, police and immigration, including UNHCR security, collectively struck refugees at their protest in Pekanbaru. One of the protesters was severely beaten and was immediately admitted to the hospital in Pekanbaru city. He was bleeding uncontrollably from his head. Many more were injured and arrested.
Refugees believe that UNHCR and IOM are complicit in Australia’s deterrent policies. They shout the slogan “Shame on you UNHCR and IOM.”
In September 2016, the (IOM) joined the ‘UN Family,’ rebranding itself the ‘UN Organization for Migration.’ However, the IOM is not mandated to protect migrants’ rights. This has opened an opportunity for Australia to utilize IOM to outsource its agendas in Indonesia. IOM manages detention facilities, refugee shelters and awareness campaigns on behalf of Australia.
“The behaviour of these NGOs, which are supposed to protect refugees’ human rights and safety, shows they are active players in Australia and Indonesia’s punishing policies.” A refugee activist who asked to be anonymous said.
Refugees believe that Australia’s influence in the regions has affected refugees’ chances of resettlement in other third countries through the UNHCR program. Countries such as the USA, Canada and others do not consider Indonesia as their priority since most refugees initially intended to reach Australia. However, Australia has brutally diminished refugees’ hope of resettlement casting them in a forever limbo in Indonesia. It has gradually stopped resettling refugees from Indonesia.
Under the previous Labor government, Australia’s humanitarian program for refugees had 20,000 places, but the Liberal government under Tony Abbott has cut down the program to 13,750 places in 2014. Then the Liberal Party came to indefinitely stop any future asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia from coming to Australia. In 2019, Australia resettled 66 refugee people from Indonesia, In 2020, 41, and in 2021, Australia resettled zero refugees from Indonesia, according to UNHCR data.
Refugees say they have no options, “We are dying here anyway. We are not afraid if they imprison us. We are already in prison. We will continue our protest no matter if it means losing our lives.”
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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.