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Afghan Refugees Stranded In Indonesia Make Last-Ditch Plea For Resettlement

Afghan refugees in Indonesia plead with the United Nations to help them gain better conditions, rights, and access to asylum applications in Australia and other countries.

Even before the Taliban returned to power, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were looking for a way out of their war-torn homeland.

In a desperate bid to escape endemic poverty and decades of war, many set their sights on an arduous route across foreign lands and treacherous seas to reach their promised land, Australia.

But for many, that ship stalled in Indonesia, an ocean away and 3,500 kilometers from their final destination.

Mohammad Juma Mohseni fled Afghanistan in 2011, traveling first to India and Malaysia before boarding a boat to Indonesia, where he joined thousands of stranded Afghans.

The 37-year-old has spent more than half of his life away from his family in exile, and his dreams of a better future in Australia remain out of his grasp, in part because refugees do not get to choose their destination country.

"Refugees in Indonesia are tired, many of them suffer from mental and physical illnesses," Mohseni told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, adding that some have attempted suicide out of despair and a handful have succeeded.

Afghan refugees in Indonesia protested on January 10.
Afghan refugees in Indonesia protested on January 10.

In November 2020, nine months before the Taliban returned to power in Kabul, the United Nations revealed that 90 percent of the world's Afghan refugees were hosted by Iran and Pakistan.

After that came India, with more than 15,600 Afghan refugees, and Indonesia, with more than 7,600, about 85 percent of them from the Shi’ite Hazara minority. The ethnic group was brutally repressed during the Taliban’s first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

Many saw Indonesia as a short-term stopover en route to Australia, but in 2013 the authorities in Canberra began refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and sent them back to the Southeast Asian nation.

Indonesia is one of the world's least desirable places for refugees. Jakarta is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the related 1967 protocol intended to eliminate restrictions on who can be considered a refugee.

Indonesia also has no asylum law of its own and delegates its responsibility to determine who gets refugee protection and finds solutions to the issue to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The result is that thousands of Afghan refugees are living in limbo in the archipelago, some for more than a decade, with no livelihood or security.

Dire Situation

Human Rights Watch, which harshly criticized conditions in Indonesia in a 2013 report, said refugees -- including unaccompanied children -- were being detained in sordid conditions, subjected to beatings, and lacked access to lawyers. Many were left to "fend for themselves, without any assistance with food or shelters," the rights watchdog said.

In 2016, Indonesia adopted new regulations on how it would handle refugees, including shelter and measures to protect their safety.

An Afghan refugee sewed his mouth shut to protest conditions in Indonesia.
An Afghan refugee sewed his mouth shut to protest conditions in Indonesia.

But for the vast majority, the measures have not moved them any closer to resettlement in a third country.

In December, Afghan refugees in Pekambaru, the capital of Indonesia's Riau Province, stitched their lips during protests in front of the UNHCR headquarters to demand the process be sped up.

The same month in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Province that hosts one of country's main refugee camps, Afghans set up tents to stage round-the-clock demonstrations in front of the Indonesian Organization for Migration (IOM) office.

The protesters intended to raise their voices to the IOM, the authority responsible for the care of refugees while they await resettlement. But the demonstration was marred by tragedy when an Afghan teenager who had been living in Indonesia for five years set himself alight.

The teen was hospitalized with severe burns to his face and arms but survived, sparing him the fate of a growing number who have died by suicide since 2016 while awaiting resettlement in Indonesia.

"Fourteen people have committed suicide and 10 have been prevented from committing suicide," Mohseni told RFE/RL. Unfortunately, he said, "neither Indonesia nor the UNHCR has had a positive message for us."

Nowhere To Turn

Members of the Afghan refugee community have grown weary of their pleas for help falling on deaf ears.

With no say in their fate, no government in Kabul to represent them, and in the wrong place to exercise their international rights as refugees, they are making a last-ditch plea to change their situation.

An Indonesian official stands next to graffiti that reads, "We are not birds to be locked inside a cage" in the room where a tunnel was dug by asylum seekers at a detention center in Pasuruan, East Java, in 2012.
An Indonesian official stands next to graffiti that reads, "We are not birds to be locked inside a cage" in the room where a tunnel was dug by asylum seekers at a detention center in Pasuruan, East Java, in 2012.

"We have gone through very long and tedious periods of protests in Indonesia," said Javad Rabbani, a 32-year-old Kabul University graduate turned refugee who has been in Indonesia for the past eight years.

He told Radio Azadi that he and his fellow refugees live in difficult conditions and have been deprived of their basic rights, including to work and education.

"Eventually we decided to launch a campaign on cyberspace, especially Twitter, because most high-ranking government officials use Twitter," Rabbani said from Madan. "Our goal is to make our voices heard by the relevant authorities."

The problem is that it is unclear exactly who the relevant authorities are.

Tariq Thani, the Afghan consul in Indonesia, told Radio Azadi that the ousted Afghan government had raised refugees' issues with the UNHCR, and received promises.

But he also said the UNHCR has said its job "is only to provide information about the status of the refugees" and stressed that their fate is up to countries willing to accept them.

The UNHCR has highlighted its efforts, noting on its official Twitter page in December that nearly half of the 2,700 refugees who had been released for resettlement were Afghans. The UN body also said some 3,700 refugees -- who include Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalians, and Burmese, among others -- had been referred for resettlement in the past five years.

Asylum seekers arrive in Indonesia at the port in Merak in 2012.
Asylum seekers arrive in Indonesia at the port in Merak in 2012.

The UNHCR has also noted that the situation is complicated by the global coronavirus pandemic, which according to the UNHCR led 160 countries to close their borders in 2020, of which nearly 100 made no exemptions for migrants or asylum-seekers.

The UNHCR has touted the success of the IOM's campaign to vaccinate refugees against COVID-19, which as of January 13 had provided first doses to more than 7,000 refugees.

But the reality remains that repatriation is a lengthy if not impossible process, and the prospect of a return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not an option despite the militant group's claim that Hazaras and others who fled the country would be welcomed back.

Help On The Line?

The refugees are now turning to the social media hashtag #HelpRefugees_Indonesia to call on the outside world to take their situation seriously.

The campaign is led by Davood Sarkhosh, a popular Hazara musician based in Germany who has said he has been inspired to create songs by those suffering in exile.

Sarkhosh told Radio Azadi that the campaign, which has been supported by Afghan celebrities, was launched with the participation "of people who feel the pain and understand" the situation of those whose lives have been put on hold for years.

All the refugees are looking for, Sarkhosh said, is a clear response from whoever controls their fate.

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