‘Does Anyone Remember Us?’
Image Credit: UNHCR

‘Does Anyone Remember Us?’


Cipayung, Indonesia-Nazir Ahmad and his wife Zahra could be forgiven for not being particularly concerned about Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s domestic political battles. After all, the young couple have their own problems, which began in mid-2008 when they fled their homeland of Afghanistan to avoid being executed.

But after fleeing their war-torn country after receiving death threats, they now they say their biggest fear is that they’ll go insane waiting to hear whether the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can resettle them in a third country.

‘We’re suffering mentally from this,’ says Nazir, who along with his wife has been waiting 18 months for some sort of resolution. His wife chimes in that she gets physically sick every time she receives a troubled email from her mother, who is still in Afghanistan. But for them, there’s no going back.

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Unable to work legally, they spend their days hanging out at a community centre and shelter for foreign refugees in this small mountain town in West Java province, about an hour’s drive from Jakarta. The two-storey building is clean and, compared with what its occupants previously endured, safe and pleasant. There are daily social activities, Internet access, sewing and language classes and a kitchen that serves drinks and snacks.

‘We decided to start a new life. If they can resettle us as soon as possible we would thank them,’ Nazir says. However, he suggests they will also consider ‘other measures’ if they have to wait much longer.

These ‘other measures’ — paying a smuggler up to $10,000 to send them in a rickety wooden boat to the northern coast of Australia — have become a headache for Rudd, as well as Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It’s also become a source of friction between the two Asian neighbours.

Indeed, Nazir and Zahra are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2009, more than 2500 refugees came to Indonesia, either by boat or commercial jetliner, compared with only 369 in 2008. More than three dozen boats were intercepted last year, with most of the refugees hailing from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Burma — countries at war or run by oppressive governments.

Of course, these people didn’t choose Indonesia for its sandy beaches and temperate climate, nor do they want to stay here. Their ultimate destination is a stable Western country, where they can live without fear, get jobs and eventually obtain citizenship. But the refugees’ motives are at the root of the problem facing Indonesia and Australia, a problem that’s likely to continue well into 2010 and beyond as more arrive.

The conventional wisdom is that Asian refugees set out with the sole purpose of reaching Australia and obtaining a work permit, using Indonesia as a convenient stepping stone. There are plenty of places to temporarily hide in a 17,000-island archipelago, and no shortage of smugglers willing to load them onto a boat bound for Down Under.

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