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Refugees in Indonesia Told to Assimilate but Not Settle

As the route to Australia has shut, Indonesia is making a reluctant and contradictory switch from being a transit country. But refugees there often face a struggle to survive.

Written by Adam Bemma Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An inside view of Immigration Detention House in west Jakarta, Indonesia, on December 19, 2017; with 445 people from various countries, the majority from Nigeria, it was was over-capacity.Erric Permana/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Fatema Barbari tears up as she recounts how police forced her family and 50 other refugees to flee a makeshift camp outside the immigration detention center in Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital.

“They ordered us to leave at night,” Barbari, 39, said as she looked around at her husband and two children at a bus station in west Jakarta. “But we have nowhere to go.”

Barbari’s 12-year-old daughter, Zahra Jaffari, translates her words into English from Dari, one of the languages of her native Afghanistan. The Jaffaris are ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan and have been living in Indonesia since 2015.

For the past two years, the family was receiving financial assistance for housing from one of the U.N. refugee agency’s partners on the ground. But since this ended last week, they have been homeless.

“We really like being in Indonesia. We feel safe here,” Barbari said. “But it’s not safe to sleep on the street.”

There are 9,000 refugees and 5,300 asylum seekers in Indonesia, according to UNHCR, and more than half are from Afghanistan. One-third of the total 14,300 are living independently without any assistance.

The Jakarta Immigration Detention Center has a maximum capacity of 120 but it currently houses a total of 224 asylum seekers and refugees. It is meant to hold only foreign nationals who have violated visa regulations or who are to be deported. But now worried families, like the Jaffaris, are trying to get in. They believe that the only way to be considered for a place to live with international or government assistance is to be processed at a detention center.

The confusion is understandable. As resettlement out of Indonesia to other countries, such as Australia, dwindles, refugees already in Indonesia are in an awkward limbo. The UNHCR began informing refugees that resettlement to a third country is becoming less likely, and that they must try their best to assimilate into Indonesian society. But Indonesian officials insist permanent residency is not an option. Indonesia views itself only as a transit country for refugees, not a final destination.

Barbari and her husband, Khadan Ali Jaffari, 50, and three of their four children – Murtaza Jaffari, 19, Mohammed Hussain, 10, and Zahra Jaffari, 12 – have all been sleeping outside under an awning to protect them from rain for nearly a week. Their eldest son, Mustafa Jaffari, 21, lives in Brisbane, Australia, having migrated there in 2013. But a change in Australia’s humanitarian intake program in 2014 makes refugees in Indonesia ineligible for resettlement.

“We miss him so much. We just want to join him in Australia, but we’ve been told we will not be able to go there,” Barbari said.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention outlining the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. The best the country provides is the right to stay temporarily and register with the UNHCR until resettlement can be processed.

In 2017, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, signed a decree recognizing the status of asylum seekers and refugees, and the country will no longer label them as illegal immigrants.

The presidential decree also set forth a policy to allow for more local refugee shelters to be set up. But many, like the Jaffaris, are forced to sleep on the streets until they can be placed inside detention centers, hoping that accommodation will soon be made available.

Refugees vie for a spot in one of the 42 community housing facilities run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These shelters are seen as an alternative to refugee detention.

“With UNHCR telling most refugees that they may not be resettled, it has created panic in the community. People have started to think about what they should do next,” said Mohammad Baquir, a 19-year-old Afghan refugee who runs a school for refugees in Jakarta.

“Some have gone to the detention center. They’re outside waiting to get in. They think they will not able to survive here on their own over the next few years,” Baquir added.

The Jaffaris would like to stay in Indonesia, closer to their son in Australia. Both of their youngest children were attending local schools and integrating well by learning bahasa Indonesia, the official language.

Access to education is very limited for refugee children, so the Jaffaris see themselves as lucky to have been given an opportunity. But the children no longer attend class because of the family’s uncertain situation. There are 11 informal refugee schools in Indonesia. Baquir’s HELP for Refugees in Jakarta is providing Indonesian language lessons to make assimilation easier.

“There’s a huge need for education in the [refugee] community,” Baquir said. “We are facing so many limitations. We are not allowed to get formal education. We are not allowed to work or involve ourselves in any kind of activity where we could earn income.”

The UNHCR, along with its partner organizations, does provide financial assistance to 400 of the most vulnerable refugees, but limited funds mean many more who are in need are left out.

“In Indonesia, we feel like we can make a life here. But we don’t have any money,” Barbari said.

If asylum seekers and refugees are to assimilate into Indonesian society rather than being forced to return to their home countries, observers say Indonesia must find solutions.

“We have seen many refugees become quite vulnerable. Many have lost their home and they have nobody to help them,” said Lars Stenger, advocacy and information officer at Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia.

The UNHCR recognizes that most Afghan refugees come from minority groups. If they were to be sent back to Afghanistan they might suffer persecution and human rights violations. This means it would be too dangerous for the Jaffaris ever to return. Compared to regional neighbors Malaysia and Thailand, the relatively small number of refugees in Indonesia – and the president’s attention on the issue – makes it a perfect place to look at ways to solve their predicament.

Indonesia’s 260 million people make it the world’s fourth most populous nation and its social safety net prioritizes the estimated 28 million Indonesians living below the poverty line, with education and housing a priority.

“Indonesia has all the ingredients to be a successful model of managing and supporting asylum seekers and refugees,” Stenger said. “But in the long run, there has to be some access to livelihoods.”

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