In Indonesia, the desperation for Afghan refugees trapped in limbo has been growing for several years
Pictures of police beating Afghan refugees with batons during 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, with thousands of Afghan refugees, most of them members of the Hazara ethnic minority, demanding faster resettlement in third countries. Some have been waiting for over a decade.
A long-oppressed minority in Afghanistan, Hazaras, who are predominantly Shia Muslims, have come to Indonesia for several years in hopes of seeking asylum in other countries such as the United States and Australia.
The protests escalated after a Hazara man named Sayed Nader Balkhi committed suicide on January 16, 2022 in Pekanbaru. He had been waiting for resettlement for six years, unable to work or send his five children to school.
The observer team spoke to a group of his other 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 refugees, he committed suicide. We went there to ask for help, we asked them to come and talk to us and say something hopeful.
But the police beat us very hard. 10 boys were injured and they are in hospital. They beat the women, the children. The police with sticks ran after us.
Niaz Farahmand currently lives in a refugee center in Pekanbaru, Indonesia.
About 14 people have committed suicide in recent years due to the uncertainty. Unfortunately, Sayed Balkhi’s suicide was not the first and it will definitely not be the last. Many more refugees have tried to commit suicide or self-harm.
“We live, but we do not live” Indonesia was once a transit country where refugees spent most months or a couple of years before resettling elsewhere. Australia and the United States resettled the majority of refugees from Indonesia, but in recent years both countries have dramatically reduced their refugee incomes from there.
Indonesia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or the subsequent Refugee Protocol of 1967, which means that refugees cannot settle permanently in the country. Instead, they are allowed to stay in Indonesia to a limited extent – similar to if they were in transit at an airport and just passed.
They are therefore not allowed to work or go to school in Indonesia, or drive a car or motorcycle. They are not allowed to travel outside the city limits and, without any source of income, they have to live on a monthly scholarship of 1,250,000 IDR (77 euros) from the IOM, which barely covers even basic expenses such as food. In 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 total uncertainty. When we talk to the UNHCR office, they give us no hope and they say we could stay here forever.
We are not in a good situation, in good conditions, and we do not have a normal life, we have no future, we have no hope. We live, but we do not live.
Latifa Rasikh currently lives in a refugee center in Batam, Indonesia with her family:
Our children need an education, they get none at all. We have been here for about eight to nine years and a whole generation of children lose 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 happy to receive money every month without having to work. We are grateful to have food and a place to stay. But it’s not enough. Every human being deserves freedom and to live in peace.
“We can not even send money to our family” When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August last year, it became even tougher for the Hazaras in Indonesia, as they saw their already remote chance of returning disappear and still feared for the safety of their relatives in the country.
Sharifa Erfan also lives in a refugee center in Batam, Indonesia:
My family is in Afghanistan and I can not do anything for them. Since the Taliban took power in August, it has gotten worse for us mentally, because we know we can never go home and we are so worried about our family and friends. They are in great danger and we can do nothing to help them here. We can not even send money to them. Nothing. The Hazaras are also discriminated against in Indonesia, where they are again a minority. They are Shia Muslims in a country that is 99% Sunni Muslims. Amanullah Sahil lives in a refugee center in Makassar, Indonesia:
We are Hazara Shia, we can not show this in Indonesia, we are afraid for our lives. We have to hide. Even if Indonesia signed the 1951 convention, we would not be able to stay because of our religion. NGOs have condemned the situation of Hazara refugees stranded in Indonesia, the neglect of immigrant children and the lack of government action.
As the number of refugees increases, permanent resettlement has become increasingly difficult. In 2020, an estimated 1.4 million refugees are in need of resettlement globally, but just over 2 percent (34,400) were relocated to a new country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The Corona pandemic has made matters worse. The UNHCR found that 160 countries had closed their borders at some point during the 2020 pandemic, with 99 states making no exceptions for people seeking protection.