The life of a refugee in Jakarta, Indonesia - Part 1

Note: This post is a two-part series to provide a better understanding of the lives and context of refugees here in Jakarta, Indonesia. It is based on real stories of friends and members of the Roshan Learning Center, but certainly each person’s journey is unique.


The Journey to Asylum

Forced to leave

It’s not an easy decision to flee one’s homeland, but every day thousands are fleeing due to political, religious, or ethnic persecution. Their journey begins in places such as Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Syria and other well known, but unfortunate centers of persecution and unrest. The necessity for life drives these individuals to escape by whatever means necessary. Under many circumstances, time is limited and life-altering decisions are made quickly to journey to asylum.

The decision to flee may come when a normal day is interrupted by a phone call, an uprising, a war, or by word-of-mouth. These individuals might not have done anything to deserve imminent persecution except to be born Hazara or Rohingya, or may be a religious minority such as a Christian or Muslim. Whatever it is, racial or political contempt is held against these individuals who have already experienced persecution or would experience persecution in the imminent future. Days, hours or even in some instances minutes count as they pack what they can carry and leave everything and everyone they have known behind. Their journey to asylum is only the beginning and hopefully safe passage to a new homeland is in their future.

Indonesia: a popular destination

Indonesia is a popular destination for many asylum seekers, particularly those from Afghanistan and Iran. Indonesia is not a country in which refugees are resettled to; it serves as a hosting nation for asylum processing. One of the main reasons many asylum seekers arrive in Indonesia is due to the country’s geographical proximity to Australia. Australia represents the land of freedom and equality–a dream. Ironically, recent changes in Australia’s refugee policies have extinguished this dream; Australia will no longer receive refugees processed in Indonesia.

In previous years many people would opt to board ill-equipped boats in Indonesia in the hopes of expediting their relocation in Australia rather than waiting on the lengthy, multi-year process typically required. This resulted in many deaths as boats would capsize or sink due to the boat’s poor conditions for such perilous waters. In 2013, the Australian government imposed a strict legislation removing all rights to asylum for those who made their way by boat to their shores. The consequence of this policy sometimes included turning waterlogged boats back towards Indonesia just as boats neared Australian shores.

A positive result from Australia’s strict legislation is that human smugglers have stopped sending boats, which has saved the lives of many who might have otherwise drowned at sea during the dangerous voyage. Yet now the backlog of those waiting on the already exhausted political process in Indonesia has only lengthened.

Hiring a human smuggler

Leaving one’s country can be difficult depending on available resources and circumstances. Some people are able to afford to travel by air, but there are others who resort to employing human smugglers to take them from point to point. The word “human smugglers” stirs up mixed emotions including thoughts of extortion, thieving and capitalizing on another human being’s suffering. Like many things in this world, the reality is not always so black and white. In many cases human smugglers serve as a last resort for those that wish to escape a country by choice in the hopes of finding safety elsewhere. I have heard stories of human smugglers that recognized the desperation people were facing and out of compassion provided them free passage so they could escape. Whatever we might think, this avenue, despite the risk, has led many people to safety… for a price

This underground railroad is filled with unknowns, fears, and anxieties. Questions abound: Will my money be stolen? Will I die along the way to Australia? Will I be rejected and deported back to the very place I’m running from? These all consuming questions are intensified by the fact that these individuals have placed their fate into the hands of strangers in an often lucrative and lawless enterprise.

With prices ranging from $2000-$8000 USD per person and promises of making it to Australia, choosing the right “agent” is crucial. Once money is exchanged fake passports are issued and tickets purchased. With all journeys being different, an example itinerary begins by air from Pakistan to Sri Lanka and then to Thailand bypassing immigration, who may have turned a blind eye. Next, by land in cargo holds, buses, and boats, and at times with lengthy jungle treks from Thailand to Indonesia passing through Malaysia. The journey to Indonesia can take anywhere from a few weeks to months depending on the chosen agent’s resources.

Food is scarce; some go days without eating, locked up in huts and cargo holds. For certain, no human being would subject themselves to such experiences by willful choice. But this is rarely a choice, it is a road to survival.

UNHCR and the wait

Upon arriving in Indonesia, many make their way to Jakarta–the capital of Indonesia. Since Australia’s policies have changed, the only option is to register for asylum with the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many people come to Indonesia without knowledge of the UNHCR asylum process until they arrive. However processing asylum with UNHCR is becoming the main avenue–an avenue that used to be secondary to chancing their fate on boats heading to Australia.

The long trek to asylum ends when they walk into the UNHCR office to begin processing their asylum claims. This is when they will also receive permission-to-stay papers for Indonesia. Now, the unknown hope for a life of freedom and dignity is an approximately 3-year waiting game. A period with no employment, government provided welfare or life-enhancing opportunities. A period of being a person without a country and without rights and privileges that citizens otherwise expect. This waiting period in Jakarta is not what asylum seekers have sought, it is what they are enduring with the hopes of finding a new home.

Looking back, even though the journey may have been a traumatic experience, many say they are running from far worse things than death that could be encountered on the journey to asylum.