By Chris Barrett
Farahnaz Salehi calls them the lost years. There have been seven of them for the 21-year-old Hazara refugee since she fled Afghanistan with her parents and her seven brothers and sisters in 2014, ending up in Indonesia.
“We are stuck here and we cannot do anything,” she said from Cisarua, a mountainous district an hour’s drive outside Jakarta.
Afghan refugees gather outside the UNHCR office in Jakarta on Tuesday after a deadly bomb blast in Kabul. Credit:Jefri Tarigan
Stranded there amid dwindling global refugee resettlement numbers that have shrunk even further due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her family is among 14,000 living in limbo in Indonesia in a situation that has become increasingly desperate amid a rising rate of suicides.
Six refugees have taken their own lives since July last year and 13 in all since 2014, according to fellow Afghan refugee Mahdi Alizada – who himself has been trapped in transit in Indonesia for seven years and is director of the Refugee Community in Indonesia (RCI) representative group. All but three who committed suicide were ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan.
While the United States and Australia withdraw from Afghanistan, there remains 7612 refugees from the war-torn country among those marooned in Indonesia. Their helpless predicament is not only a glimpse into the ongoing impact of the two-decade long war for those forced out of their homeland but into the plight of the more than 20 million refugees around the world, only 22,770 of whom were resettled last year.
The psychological toll of the uncertainty and the years wasting away is such that Farahnaz, whose family is from the south-eastern city of Ghazni in Afghanistan, admits she has sometimes been “wishing my death to come to me”.
“It is very sad and heartbreaking to people who really want to do something with their life but they cannot do it,” she said. “Most of the time I’ve been feeling desperate and lost in my own mind or mentally lost. I’m very grateful for my friends that they were keeping me positive.”
Farahnaz Salehi has been in Indonesia for seven years.
Indonesia receives asylum seekers rescued from boats and has long taken in thousands of refugees. Among the current number, according to the UNHCR, are 1366 from Somalia, 729 from Iraq and 354 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar given shelter in Aceh province.
But with Indonesia being a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol on refugees, their rights are limited and crucially they don’t include the ability to work.
‘The 14,000 refugees in Indonesia do not have access to their most basic human rights.’
Their hopes of starting a new life in a third country are also fading with resettlement numbers dropping even before the virus took hold. According to the United Nations refugee agency there were only 403 refugees in Indonesia resettled last year but the figure had already dropped from a high of 1273 in 2016. The UNHCR concedes that of the 13,745 in Indonesia, “only a small number will be able to benefit from resettlement” because of limited places available.
The falling intake by Australia, which once was responsible for the majority of refugees resettled from Indonesia, is a contributing factor. After taking in 433 in 2017, it found spots for only 84 in 2018, 66 in 2019 and 41 in 2020.
The Australian government’s refusal to accept anyone who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after July 1, 2014 has added to the logjam.
That position was reached in the wake of Operation Sovereign Borders but after the spate of suicides starting midway through last year, refugees have launched a fresh plea for Australia to soften its stance.
Mahdi Alizada spent five years in a detention facility on Borneo and is now a refugee representative. Credit:Jefri Tarigan
“Refugees residing in Indonesia are grateful for Australia’s humanitarian action on the closure of the sea border to prevent human casualties but the truth is that suicide and the uncertain situation of refugees in Indonesia is no different than drawing into the water,” Mahdi’s RCI wrote in a letter to the Australian government in February seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
In an additional written appeal to the Australian, US, Canadian, British and New Zealand embassies in Jakarta, refugee groups in Indonesia have urged resettlement numbers to be raised and for the selection process to be more transparent.
The letter attributed the long waiting times for resettlement to the suffering by refugees from “various neurological, mental and physical ailments”, saying “the slow and prolonged resettlement process has taken away most of our beings here in Indonesia”.
“The 14,000 refugees in Indonesia do not have access to their most basic human rights,” it said. “They do not have the right to work, to study, to travel interstate, to trade or to have a driving licence. The list of limitations and prohibitions is endless.”
In a statement a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said the July 1, 2014 deadline was “designed to reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia and Australia through dangerous journeys”.
The government is funding the support of refugees by the International Organisation for Migration through a long-standing regional co-operation agreement with Indonesia to which it this week committed $38.1 million. But as it stands, few of them will make it to Australia.
“Within our resettlement intake of up to 13,750 for 2020-21, we continue to accept a modest intake from Indonesia for those who registered before 1 July 2014,” the spokesperson said.
That category includes Mahdi, who registered in April 2014, but the 36-year-old is still in Jakarta after spending five years inside the Balikpapan detention centre for refugees on the island of Borneo. He initially submitted himself to the facility because of financial problems but was later involved in a 300-day protest about conditions for refugees there. He said he was “treated like an animal” and until April 2019 was refused release from a complex with a six-metre wall, barbed wire and electricity wires surrounding it.
Refugees in Indonesia have limited rights.Credit:Jefri Tarigan
Indonesia’s 13 detention centres have since been closed – Mahdi was among the last let out two years ago, he said – and the country’s refugees now in large part either live independently in community housing or with the assistance of monthly allowances of about $120 each from the IOM, which has also distributed COVID-19 relief assistance.
The consequences of being indefinitely stateless and effectively idle, however, are a disturbing pattern.
Muzafar Ali, a co-founder of the volunteer-led Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre that was established in 2014 and has been supported by Australian donors, saw it for himself when conducting video interviews with teachers and school management this year.
The school and other ones set up by the refugee community have been shut for many months due to the virus, with lessons instead online, and Musafar’s Adelaide-based Cisarua Learning organisation has partnered with the UN Human Rights Council in a project providing psycho-social support.
“The common words we found [from interviewees] were about being alone, being useless, being worthless,” said Musafar, who was resettled in Australia after fleeing Afghanistan to Indonesia.
“One of them said that the term ‘buying a rope’ is commonly used among refugees these days. This was very shocking for me.”
Cisarua has been home to thousands of refugees in Indonesia.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
He reported one of the staff members he had spoken to told him he was thinking about suicide because he “couldn’t see any light in the tunnel”.
“Overall, the experience was very grim for me personally,” Muzafar said. “To know how these refugees are still suffering. The indefinite limbo is having a deep impact on their mental health and COVID-19 is just [making worse] those impacts.”
An official at Indonesia’s Directorate of Immigration said resettlement was the role of the UNHCR but expressed sympathy for refugees.
“Some of them must be very weary and bored although Indonesia, assisted by the IOM and UNHCR, has treated them well,” he said. “They live properly and their human rights are respected highly.”
Asked about dropping resettlement figures, the immigration official said the Indonesian government believed “the number of resettlements must be increased every year” and Australia had a part to play in that.
“[Australia] must continue to assist and work together with Indonesia because Australia is one of the countries of destination while Indonesia is a country of transit,” the official said.
In a written response to questions, the IOM’s Indonesia mission said its assistance for refugees included mental health and psycho-social counselling it had ramped up its support services because of the stresses of the pandemic.
The UNHCR is also looking to increase mental health support, according to its Indonesia head Ann Mayman, as well as pressing the government of Joko Widodo to allow refugees more basic rights so they could “live a meaningful life while they wait”.
Its other task is convincing governments like Australia to increase their refugee quotas. There was welcome news with US President Joe Biden this month raising its cap from a Trump-era 15,000 to an intake of 62,500 over the next six months. The places set aside by the Australian government, which announced in its budget it would spend $464.7 million over two years on immigration detention, are down from 18,750 in 2019.
“Australia doesn’t want to give access to asylum seekers who arrive at their borders but raising their resettlement quota is a way that should in principle fall within the type of refugee policy Australia wants,” Maymann said.
The UNHCR also facilitates the voluntary repatriation of refugees to their countries of origin.
For Farahnaz’s family and most others like hers, however, that is not an option.
They left Afghanistan after being threatened by the Taliban and with the rise in violence and fear that has accompanied the announcement of foreign troop withdrawal, they are not about to go back.
“People like our family who are living in Afghanistan now are afraid because the Taliban has no mercy on people,” Farahnaz said. “They don’t care who you are.”
with Karuni Rompies
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