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.
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.
Successive Australian governments, given the increasingly sour public mood about illegal immigration, responded to this with a firm hand. Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard shipped refugees off to willing Pacific Island nations to wait it out as part of his ‘Pacific Solution.’ But Rudd scrapped that policy when he took office in 2007, seeking a more humane way to deal with the problem.
But this new approach proved to be short-lived given the sharp spike in refugees, and although the Australian government continues to discourage asylum seekers from illegally journeying to its shores, word still made its way through South Asia and the Middle East that ‘the gates were open’ to Australia.
‘They’re seeking a better life, so maybe that makes them economic [refugees],’ says Siti Mariam, a team leader for World Church Service, which runs the community centre as well as a shelter for unaccompanied, underage refugees.
‘But then again, there’s insecurity [in their home countries], and the change in policy of the Australian government,’ she adds, noting what she calls the ‘heated debate’ over the issue.
No one needs to tell this to Rudd. He was attacked by the opposition in 2009 for his ‘failed’ policies on refugees and for being ‘soft’ on people smugglers, forcing him to pull back. So last year saw the birth of the ‘Indonesian Solution’ under which Canberra gives financial assistance to Indonesia to intercept boats bound for Australia, and to hold and process refugees.
Indonesia is now doing just this, grudgingly, but its detention facilities are so crowded that some refugees are living freely in Jakarta, West Java and other areas.
‘The “Indonesian Solution” is an Australian proposal. We’re prepared to assist any countries including Australia, but not making Indonesia a dumping ground for unwanted people like illegal migrants,’ says Sujatmiko, an official from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who’s been dealing with the refugee issue. ‘In addressing this illegal migrants issue, we should involve all countries: of origin, destination and transit.’
But this strategy means that countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma and Iran should actually be part of the solution, something that is hard to imagine given that people are willing to risk death just to get away from them. More realistically, Malaysia, where Muslim passport holders can enter without a visa and then proceed on to Indonesia, must weed out Kuala Lumpur-based smugglers. Yet Malaysia has yet to demonstrate that it’s willing to assist, meaning the problem remains in the collective laps of Indonesia and Australia.
Both may want re-evaluate the nature of their refugee problem.
First, it’s questionable that all Asian refugees are determined to get to Australia. Several refugees at the community centre one recent rainy morning said their plan was simply to get out of their country alive and find somewhere to seek asylum and none said they were trying to get to Australia specifically.
Consider the case of Samer Majeed, a 31-year-old Iraqi photographer, who joined hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis who fled to Syria in 2007. He bought an airline ticket to Kuala Lumpur because he didn’t need a visa for Malaysia, and immediately applied for refugee status with the UNHCR. After a year of waiting without answer, Majeed had had enough and paid a smuggler $300 — at that time a bargain — to get him on an illegal boat that sailed to Medan, the capital of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province.
Instead of being locked up in a detention centre, he was able to travel to Jakarta and seek help at a UNHCR office there, before eventually being brought up to Cipayung where he lives in a small hotel room paid for with a monthly stipend given to him by UNHCR. Almost every day, he walks down the only main road in the town, a pit stop for weekend travellers on their way to the nearby tourist resort of Puncak, and down a narrow paved road to the community centre.
‘I had no intention of going to Australia. I just wanted a safe place, a safe country, a free country,’ he says. The young children of a fellow refugee from Iran run around playing with small dolls in the background. ‘A lot of journalists get killed in Iraq.’
Another pint for policymakers to consider is the fact that these refugees are not necessarily ‘economic migrants’ — those with adequate financial resources suspected of requesting asylum in rich, developed nations solely for the improved economic opportunities and eventual citizenship.
‘Noros,’ an Afghan journalist-turned-refugee who came to Indonesia in 2008, was earning $3,000 a month working as a media officer for a World Bank project back home. But he left Afghanistan less than 48 hours after receiving a death threat and learning that he was on a government blacklist from leaving the country because of stories he wrote on state corruption for a Kabul newspaper.
Sitting at a table in the refugee community centre, where he volunteers as a translator, Noros openly acknowledges that he was only able to get this far because he had money for two fake passports and an airline ticket to Dubai, unlike the millions of refugees who aren’t so fortunate and can only hope to make it across the border of their war-torn country to safety, such as the estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees now living in Syria.
Still, Noros says he and many other refugees who made it this far didn’t do it for economic reasons.
‘Afghanistan is not a comfortable place for journalists — 40 journalists were killed between 2002 and 2009,’ he says. ‘But it’s difficult for the Indonesian people to understand why these people are coming; it’s difficult for the Australians to understand.’
While the Australian and Indonesian governments try to figure out what to do, the refugees have little choice but to sit and wait. Siti Marian, whose team runs the community centre, says that one group of Somalis have been waiting in Indonesia since 1989 to be resettled. The fear that compelled such refugees to flee their home countries may only be equalled now by the fear that they will be forgotten.
That’s understandable, since it’s an open secret that the Australian government has pressured the UNHCR as well as the International Organization for Migration not to speak to the press about the refugees huddling in Indonesia. In Jakarta, employees of both organizations spent much of 2009 visibly cringing or stammering ‘no comment’ when approached by journalists to discuss the refugee issue.
Such fear doesn’t inspire confidence. Yet some refugees, like 17-year-old Ali, who came to Indonesia by himself from Afghanistan, still manage to stay upbeat.
‘My hope for the new year is to have clear [refugee] status,’ he says in the shelter he’s staying in across a narrow road from the community centre. And with a smile, he added: ‘I hope to be resettled quickly — and not wait eight or nine years.’