JAKARTA, Indonesia – Kamal Hussein Arakani, a Rohingya refugee who has lived in Indonesia for 7 years, says he surrendered to God about his unclear future.
“I do not work, just sit in the refugee camp,” Mr. Hussein told The Globe Post.
Along with dozens of other refugees, Mr. Hussein is now housed at Hotel Beraspati, a camp in Medan City, North Sumatra Province. The 30-year-old Muslim man recalled that the ship he and about 130 other Rohingya were traveling on landed in Aceh Province, the westernmost part of Indonesia, in mid-February 2011, after being in the ocean for three weeks.
“We were running out of food and very weak, many of us were sick,” he said, adding the incident was traumatic. He said he was forced to take extreme measures to escape from his village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State due to violence and discrimination by the military and a group of Buddhist civilians.
Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from conflict zones and poor countries are living for years in Indonesia without any certainty of when they will be transferred to a third country. The United Nations has called the Rohingya the world’s most persecuted minority group and described actions by Myanmar’s authorities as “ethnic cleansing,” whereby one group removes another ethnic or religious community through violence.
Mr. Hussein said he was willing to return to Myanmar as long as the government fulfilled his rights as a citizen. “But it is difficult for me to trust the Myanmar government,” he said.
For refugees like Mr. Hussein, Indonesia is a transit country, where they register with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the capital city of Jakarta before they are given permission to relocate to places such as the United States, Europe, and Australia.
Indonesia is not signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugee Status and cannot officially accept refugees for permanent resettlement.
Refugees and asylum-seekers who end up in Indonesia arrive there due to a number of circumstances. Some have run out of money while waiting to enter another country, or are arrested by the authorities for involvement in people-smuggling; others, such as Mr. Hussein, are first stranded on the country’s beaches.
According to UNHCR data, more than 14,000 refugees and asylum-seekers live in Indonesia and are waiting for a third country willing to accommodate them. Many have been in Indonesia, the world most populous Muslim country, for years.
Refugees and asylum-seekers are prohibited from working, so they have left to depend on the help of local residents and international agencies.
Another Rohingya refugee, Muhammad Mas’ud, told The Globe Post that refugee life is difficult but he is grateful that the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR fulfill his basic needs. “Refugees’ life is very difficult, but we are happy here,” Mr. Mas’ud said, adding that he is free to worship and feels more secure in Indonesia.
Because of the long waiting period, many asylum-seekers eventually settle in the area. One of the most well-known settlements is Cisarua, a sub-district in Bogor City, West Java, where refugees try to mix with the locals and live in rented houses. In the area stands the Cisarua Refugee Learning Center, a non-formal school where asylum-seekers can learn English in preparation for their UNHCR interviews.
In addition to Cisarua and Medan, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers are also scattered in other cities across Indonesia such as Kupang, Jakarta, Pontianak, and Makassar.
Difficulty Getting to a Third Country
In recent months, local media in Indonesia have been reporting about refugees and asylum-seekers lying on the streets, without adequate shelter, and the uncertainty over their situations.
Asylum-seekers, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, have held a series of demonstrations in several areas, including in front of the UNHCR building in Jakarta, urging the institution to move them to a third country soon.
Muhammad Hafidz, the advocacy coordinator of SUAKA, a Jakarta-based organization advocating for asylum seekers’ rights, predicts that they will find it increasingly difficult to resettle in the future as countries pursue policies to reduce the number of resettled refugees.
“Refugee destinations, such as Australia and the United States, have recently issued policies on restrictions on the acceptance of asylum-seekers,” Mr. Hafidz told The Globe Post.
This phenomenon, Mr. Hafidz said, will cause bad consequences for Indonesia. “The number of refugees is predicted to increase, while asylum seekers will stay longer in Indonesia.”
He said the position of UNHCR is now a dilemma because it does not have the authority to determine a third country, and is only able to propose refugee names on their waiting lists to countries that have ratified refugee status in 1951. “But not all refugees are directly accepted by a third country because they select refugees before they become citizens,”
SUAKA Director Febi Yonesta told The Globe Post that Indonesia should be able to contribute more to helping refugees and asylum-seekers, though not one of the signatories of the refugee convention, by providing their basic needs. “The problem of asylum seekers and refugees is not merely in the resettlement process, but also the fulfillment of their basic rights during the process,” Mr. Yonesta said.
“They stay here [Indonesia] for years. [They] definitely need to work to be independent, and their children also need education.”
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the end of last year signed a new regulation governing refugees from abroad. It covers the protection of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers; provides recognition for family unification; clarifies the country’s definition of refugees; distributes inter-institutional roles and shared responsibility principles; and allows the use of the state budget for refugee protection.
Although the new rules do not address basic rights such as education and employment, the move marks a significant progress in the country’s handling of refugees. The regulation also states that refugees whose requests are refused by UNHCR will be deported to their home countries.
Used by the Human Smuggling Syndicate
The condition of refugees without a certain future is often exploited by human smugglers who can facilitate travel to third countries through illegal channels. Refugees pay thousands of dollars to the syndicate and are willing to risk their lives at sea and board boats to Australia.
But this practice is now less successful due to the tight control of the waters between the two countries. Australia has explicitly rejected the resettlement of refugees who come by illegal channels.
The relationship between Australia and Indonesia heated up in 2015 when it was revealed that Australian authorities pushed back a boat carrying 65 asylum-seekers and paid the captain of the ship to bring them back into Indonesian waters.
Although efforts to eradicate human smuggling continue to be enforced, the syndicates continue to operate and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Last week, immigration officers in Soekarno-Hatta Airport arrested two Malaysians who were allegedly part of an international people smuggling syndicate that sends migrants from poor countries to Europe through illegal ways.
Airport head Enang Syamsi said both men were arrested along with three people from Sri Lanka who were illegally traveling to Europe.
“The syndicate uses Indonesia as a transit country, through where it sends people illegally to European countries such as England, Germany, and France,” Mr. Syamsi said in a press conference in Jakarta on Monday.
The syndicate allegedly collects missing Malaysian passports for use by illegal migrants that who look similar enough to the real owner.
Mr. Syamsi said the two Malaysian men were couriers who escort migrants to a destination country, and they were paid $2,000 for every person who was successfully transported. “They chose to dispatch migrants from Indonesia because, among other [things], there are many flights to Europe with low cost,” he added.
Mr. Syamsi said the syndicate is highly structured since there is an order from Europe before they send people, who will be employed in cleaning services or adopted.
The Indonesian Immigration Office is coordinating with the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta to investigate the case. “The crime is structured. We are still investigating their networks in Indonesia,” Mr. Syamsi said.
Back in the camp in Medan, Mr. Hussein hopes that the International migration body and UNHCR can help him get to another country, even though that expectation is getting smaller.
“There are dozens or even hundreds of countries in the world, and many of them have majority Muslim citizens. Are not anyone willing to accept us?”