In Indonesia, desperation grows for Afghan refugees trapped in limbo for years
Images of police beating Afghan refugees with batons at a protest in Pekanbaru, Indonesia on January 18, 2022 have been circulating on social media. Demonstrations have been going on for months across the country, as thousands of Afghan refugees, mostly members of the Hazara ethnic minority, demand quicker resettlement in third countries. Some have been waiting for over a decade.
Video: A number of Afghan refugees protested in front of the UNHCR office in #Indonesia on Monday but their protest turned violent and the protesters were beaten by police. #Afghanistan #PaykMedia #HelpRefugees_Indonesia pic.twitter.com/NiQDlsvlOa— Payk Media - Revealing the Truth (@PaykMedia) January 18, 2022
A minority long oppressed in Afghanistan, Hazaras, who are overwhelmingly Shia Muslims, have been coming to Indonesia for years, hoping to get asylum in other countries like the US and Australia.
The protests escalated after a Hazara man named Sayed Nader Balkhi committed suicide on January 16, 2022 in Pekanbaru. He had been awaiting resettlement for 6 years, unable to work or send his five children to school.
Let's not let the inhumane situation of Afghan refugees in Indonesia takes momentum. It's time to end our misery. It's time to give us hope of a new beginning. #HelpRefugees_Indonesia pic.twitter.com/w3T9Ysf6EZ— Sohil Mohammadi (@mohammadi_sohil) January 21, 2022
The Observers team spoke to a group of his fellow Hazara refugees from Afghanistan.
Adila is a Hazara refugee who has been in Pekanbaru, Indonesia for the past six years with her brother.
We went to the UNHCR office [on January 18, 2022], we lost one of our Hazara refugee, he committed suicide. We went there to ask for help, we asked them to come and speak to us and say something hopeful.
But the police beat us very badly. 10 boys were injured and they are in hospital. They beat the women, the children. The police with sticks were running after us.
Niaz Farahmand currently lives in a refugee centre in Pekanbaru, Indonesia.
Around 14 people have committed suicide in recent years because of the uncertainty. Unfortunately, Sayed Balkhi’s suicide wasn’t the first and it definitely won’t be the last. Many more refugees have attempted to commit suicide or self harm themselves.
“ We are alive, but we are not living”
Indonesia was once a transit country where refugees would spend months or a couple of years, at most, before being resettled elsewhere. Australia and the US resettled the majority of refugees from Indonesia, but in recent years both countries have dramatically reduced their refugee intakes from there.
Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or the subsequent 1967 Refugee Protocol, meaning refugees cannot resettle permanently in the country. Instead, they are allowed to stay in Indonesia on a limited basis – similar to if they were in transit at an airport and just passing through.
They are therefore not allowed to work or go to school in Indonesia, or drive a car or motorcycle. They may not travel outside city limits and, with no source of income, must live off a monthly stipend of IDR 1,250,000 (77 euros) provided by IOM which barely covers even basic expenses like food. Over time, this lack of freedom takes its toll, as Niaz Farahmand tells us:
We are often stuck here for 8 to 10 years. During this time, we have no information about our future and live in complete uncertainty. When we talk to the UNHCR office, they don’t give us any hope and they say that we could stay here forever.
We are not in a good situation, in good conditions, and we don’t have a normal life, we don’t have any future, we don’t have any hope. We are alive, but we are not living.
Latifa Rasikh currently lives in a refugee centre in Batam, Indonesia with her family:
Our children need to receive an education, they’re not getting any at all. We have been here for about eight to nine years and a whole generation of children is missing out on their education during their most critical years.
We are like prisoners here. We have no freedom. Some locals tell us that we should be grateful and that we are so lucky to receive money every month without having to work. We are grateful to have food and a place to live. But that isn’t enough. Every human deserves freedom and to live in peace.
“We can’t even send money to our family”
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August, things got even tougher for the Hazaras in Indonesia, as they watched their already remote chance of return evaporate and feared for the safety of their relatives still in the country.
Sharifa Erfan also lives in a refugee centre in Batam, Indonesia:
My family is in Afghanistan and I cannot do anything for them. Since the Taliban takeover in August, things have got worse for us mentally, as we know that we can never go home and we are so worried about our family and friends. They are in a lot of danger and we can’t do anything to help them here. We can’t even send them money. Nothing.
The Hazara also face discrimination in Indonesia where they are a minority again. They are Shia Muslims in a country that is 99% Sunni. Amanullah Sahil lives in a refugee centre in Makassar, Indonesia:
We are Hazara Shia, we can’t show this in Indonesia, we are scared for our lives. We have to hide. Even if Indonesia signed the 1951 convention, we wouldn’t be able to stay because of our religion.
NGOs have denounced the situation of Hazara refugees stuck in Indonesia, the neglect of migrant children and the lack of governmental action.
As the number of refugees climbs, permanent resettlement has become increasingly difficult. In 2020, an estimated 1.4 million refugees were estimated to be in need of resettlement globally, but only slightly more than 2 percent (34,400) were relocated for protection in a new country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse. The UNHCR found that 160 countries had closed their borders at some time during the pandemic in 2020, with 99 states making no exceptions for people seeking protection.