Why on Earth are there Refugees in Indonesia?

There are thousands of expats who come to Jakarta each year to help the vulnerable, the down-trodden, the “least of these.” We come with hopes of lifting people out of poverty and improving health, education and livelihoods for the poor. But of course, we usually come to help the Indonesian poor, of which there are many. Indonesia’s growing economic strength belies a deep and broad population living in poverty. Therefore, people are often surprised to hear we work with refugees, the poor among us who are not Indonesian by definition. “Why are there refugees in Jakarta?” people often ask.

There are as many reasons as there are asylum seekers, since each person’s story is uniquely personal. Yet there are points of convergence as well.

Unique Stories

Asylum seekers and refugees come from all over the world, but participants at Roshan Learning Center (RLC) come mainly from Afghanistan and Iran. We have a bilingual approach to children’s learning that requires understanding of Farsi. Adult participants who mainly come to learn English may come from Mali, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Ethiopia.

Some people received a good education at home and in fact are teachers or managers at our center; and others received no schooling at all before attending this learning center. Their families may be generations long without access even to primary school. Some were middle-class professionals in their home country–registered nurses, civil engineers, or business owners–and some came from deep poverty. Some come from major cosmopolitan cities like Tehran, and some come from remote villages where sheep herding runs the economy. Some are Muslim, some are new Christians, some are atheists. Some have dearly beloved family members still in the home country, some people have no one left.

In other words, our group is extremely diverse.

Common Experiences

Nonetheless, there are common bonds: They left their home countries because they felt they had no choice. In addition to war and conflict, there are three types of persecution our participants are usually fleeing:

  • Political (people disagreed with their government or their government can’t protect them from extremist leaders)
  • Ethnic (people in certain groups are executed because of family heritage)
  • Religious (people changed religions or considered changing religions)

For any of these reasons, our participants could be hanged, shot, imprisoned, or tortured in their home country.

And they often have family members who were. We have a widow with three young children in our community who lost her husband during a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan. We have young man whose father was hanged for disagreeing with his government too vocally; another whose brother was tortured by the Taliban twice before he died; and another whose parents were burned to death for converting to Christianity.

But Why Indonesia? And How?

They come to Indonesia typically because it is an easy place to land without a visa; they can get a visa on arrival. They also come because as a predominantly Muslim group, at least at the time of arrival, many of them feel comfortable arriving here in another predominantly Muslim country (although some of them have become Christians while here). Until 2014, many came with the hopes of taking a boat to Australian territory, Christmas Island. Although the boats stopped going shortly after July 2014, when Australia stopped accepting boat arrivals for resettlement, many asylum-seekers in Indonesia came prior to that policy change.

Immigrants arrive by plane, boat, bus ride, walking, in the trunks of cars, or some combination of the above. Some have authentic passports and some used fake passports. Some better-off individuals simply fly to Indonesia as they can get a visa on arrival; and others who can’t afford to fly pay smugglers to help them get here. These are usually more arduous and traumatic journeys.

Steps to Get from Here to a Third Country

Upon arrival, immigrants usually go directly to the UNHRC office and register. Once registered, they are considered asylum-seekers. After a waiting period that can take between 9 – 24 months, UNHCR officials interview them in what’s called the First Instance interview, and decide whether there is a legitimate case showing persecution in the home country. If UNHCR sees a case, the person becomes recognized as a refugee. This is a moment of huge relief and joy for the person. It means the person will get to go somewhere other than back to the home country–although they do not get to choose where they go.

The consulate of a third country will then interview the refugee person or family and may or may not accept them for resettlement in that country. They may be interviewed by two countries or more before a country accepts them. Our participants typically go to the US, Australia or New Zealand.

If UNHCR does not find enough evidence of persecution after the First Instance interview, the asylum seeker is rejected. This is extremely difficult news for the person in question. They may appeal one time. If their appeal is accepted, the asylum seeker becomes a refugee. If the appeal is rejected, UNHCR and Indonesia expect the person to go back to their home country, although some countries will not repatriate a citizen who has tried to leave.

The process of status determination and resettlement now usually takes around 4 years.

Work and School

During those 4 years, asylum seekers and refugees may neither work nor go to school. The laws state clearly that any attempt to earn an income by working while in Indonesia while lead to a rejection as a refugee; and there is an absence of law to protect children’s right to education. Barriers to school enrollment include:

* Inability to speak Indonesian.
* Inability to pay for required school uniforms and books.
* Lack of interest in Indonesian curriculum, as Indonesia is viewed as a temporary stay.
* Disinterest or sometimes hostility on the part of Indonesians to accept them in school.

Roshan Learning Center provides a bilingual approach: Half of our classes are held in English (with a focus on learning English) and half of classes are held in Farsi (with a focus on teaching content knowledge such as math and science, mainly, although we do try to offer music, art, and physical education when possible).

We do not charge tuition but we do require families to pay for their own transportation costs, which is not insignificant in Jakarta.

Some participants receive a small stipend each month to live on (about 1,000,000 rp or US$85), provided by various church congregations, private individuals who want to help, or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), but others receive no financial help from anyone. They live off savings, help from family members, or illegally doing odd jobs.

Creating Community

Participants live in various places around Jakarta (there are detention centers and shelters for refugees in Jakarta, but we do not specifically work with those groups). Asylum seekers generally try to avoid congregating in a single area or apartment complex because those areas become targeted by Indonesian Immigration officials or scam artists looking for easy prey. As a result, refugees in Jakarta are geographically and emotionally isolated. The learning center therefore provides a community center of sorts, as well as a place to offer classes.

Because child well-being is highly dependent on parental well-being, and because single adults need connection and community, we try to provide classes and groups for refugee adults when we can find volunteers. In some ways, our participants are nothing like each other, but in other ways, they share many common bonds.

Ironically, they also share many things in common with poor Indonesians: lack of adequate health care, education and a voice in the community, among others. But with many people working to make a difference for both Indonesians and asylum seekers, good things are happening in Jakarta and throughout Indonesia.