I moved back to Washington, D.C., this summer, after eight years in Jakarta. I felt guilty saying goodbye to my refugee friends, knowing that my move was by choice and fueled by good things: a chance to be near my extended family, a new job for my husband, the pull of home. I wasn’t forced to leave by events beyond my control. I wasn’t fleeing. I chose to go home.
Musa*, with his gap-toothed grin and hand-me-down faded blue Oakland Zoo Camp t-shirt, doesn’t care one whit about a bunch of adults getting together to talk about “the causes of international flows of people and their complex inter-relations with development, armed conflict and environmental changes.” Musa only wants to know when he is going to be picked as goose in a lively game of duck-duck-goose.
Meanwhile, government leaders, the media, and think tanks, are going back and forth about an ongoing global crisis of people on the run from war, persecution, and climate change in their homelands. The crisis isn’t going away and Indonesia has a great opportunity to become a leader on the issue, while bolstering its reputation as a place of humanitarian understanding.
By signing the Convention of Refugee Rights and actively supporting refugees, Indonesia has the opportunity to invest a little and see a high return on investment — gaining the respect of the global community, the thanks of truly vulnerable people in need, high-performing new residents in some cases, and hopefully a seat at President Barack Obama’s refugee summit in September.
While Musa, his family, and 14.000 refugees sit in limbo in Indonesia, President Obama and the United Nations will host the September summit of high-level leaders from around the world in New York on Sept. 19. Indonesia should be there, and has recent experience to make a worthy contribution.
In 1975, Indonesia received tens of thousands of Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese who fled their homes because they had supported U.S.-led invasions and feared retaliation. These refugees ended up staying in Indonesia for 20 years or more. Their assimilation was not always easy, and they “tested Indonesia’s patience seriously,” as scholar Antje Missbach says. But Indonesia took them in all the same, and was praised accordingly by the world’s human rights community. Indonesia now has a chance to lead the way again, and enhance its global stature.
Whether Indonesia will make this commitment in time to be invited to the summit is an open question. Indonesia is perhaps best described as “on the fence” about aiding displaced people at the moment. Officially, the government does not deport asylum seekers but also does not provide active support for them.
Despite the growing number of displaced people now living in Jakarta, growing from 500 to 14,000 in less than a decade, global attention has largely been focused elsewhere. Turkey is trying to keep pace with 2.5 million refugees from Syria alone, and Jordan, which has a population of less than 6.5 million people, is currently home to 630,000 refugees, again from Syria.
Indonesia’s comparatively small numbers provides a tremendous opportunity. There are opportunities to serve and integrate people in a way that other countries, overwhelmed by sheer numbers and limited resources, cannot.
Take Musa’s father, for example. If the government allowed Musa’s father to work, he would gladly do so, contributing to the local economy. He would love to earn money through his own hard labor cleaning the streets or washing cars, rather than waiting for meager handouts, which he may or may not receive. Another parent, Maryam, has a master’s degree in civil engineering and a specialty in transportation. She is desperate to work but also is unable to given her refugee status, which prevents her from working. Yet she her skills could be invaluable in Indonesia, a country that doesn’t have enough trained engineers and whose capital, Jakarta, is routinely stalled by traffic.
To remedy this, Indonesia could enable refugees to work — a policy Jordan recently enacted. There are also abundant opportunities for vocational programs to train individuals to become professionals in fields of agriculture and food sciences, computer sciences, transportation, ship building, engineering, and manufacturing, all areas requiring wider skill sets to boost the Indonesian economy, according to a 2015 report by OECD and the Asian Development Bank. Creating those opportunities would benefit Indonesia as much as the refugees. Both skilled and unskilled workers boost local economies by having incomes that allow them to become both consumers and producers.
In addition to gainful employment, education is vital to the development of every displaced child. It is the goal of the UN to integrate children into host country schools, and Indonesia can advance that goal as well, while helping alleviate negative ripple effects in the community. With thousands of children and adults waiting for help, many having experienced chronic or recent trauma, health concerns from mental illness to substance abuse, from domestic violence to sickness from crowded living spaces, can spread.
So far, Musa has fortunately stayed healthy despite his family’s hard circumstances, including that his younger brother is a special needs child who suffers mental and physical challenges. Musa and his sisters mostly want to go to school every day to learn and make friends. His parents want to do something other than wait.
A few key steps by Indonesia’s government could help make that happen, and along the way, Indonesia could once again help show the world how to make room for even the most unexpected guests.
*All names changed to maintain confidentiality. Special thanks to Amb. Robert Blake and Mrs. Sofia Blake for inputs into the ideas put forth in this article, and to Hugh Biggar for edits. All opinions expressed reflect only those of the author. UN Photo by Rick Bajornas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Long Wait for Hope
The young woman looked at me, her brow furrowed, her head tilted. We continued walking around the back of the red brick building. “I don’t mean to be—well, maybe this is rude, but what do they do? How do they live?” she asked, clearly embarrassed by such an indiscreet question. The young woman in question was a visitor at the learning center, an expat considering volunteering to teach.
I get this question all the time, both directly and indirectly, from people like myself, people who are lucky enough to have job, or if not a job, a relative who has a paid job or a pension. Melinda, I’ll call her, was trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together about how the families participating in the learning center—not to mention the 11,000-plus other refugees in Indonesia—could get by while they wait for “a durable solution.”
Arrival: Rushing to Wait
Upon arrival and after registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), new arrivals are called asylum seekers. They are seeking asylum from the dangers in their home country—inquisition, imprisonment, hanging, or torture perhaps, for “crimes” such as disagreeing with their government, believing in Jesus Christ, being homosexual, or being born Hazara or Kurdish or another ethnicity. Within hours or days after putting their feet on Indonesian soil, most head straight to the UNHCR office to register and get papers that allow them to stay in Indonesia until they can move elsewhere to a permanent new home—that’s the durable solution they hope for. They get up and get in line at 4 am to get those papers.
And then? And then they wait.
They wait and wait and wait some more. They wait for months until the UN calls them for an interview. Then they prepare with the devotion of an elite university hopeful— though with higher stakes than a university entrance. Applicants recreate the timeline of their moves, every move they have ever made—along with addresses—over the last 30 years. They memorize their timelines, their relatives’ birthdates, their employers’ last names and addresses. Spouses work to match their answers precisely. Parents quiz their kids so they will get the “right” answer when the case officer interviews them.
Rejection takes many forms — a mismatch between what is said on paper and verbally, a mis-remembered story by a family member, a missing detail on persecution at home — all equal rejection. Economic hard times, or a lack of jobs in the old country, are not sufficient for acceptance. Instead, danger is paramount. Asylum seekers must demonstrate they were in danger at home and will be in danger again if they are sent back. With this mind, and a long journey at their backs and possibly ahead of them, refugees try to make their case, their fate in the hands of a case officer.
And then? And then they wait.
Waiting for the Golden Ticket
They wait for the answer from UNHCR. Have they gotten the Golden Ticket to a new home country or have they gotten the “Return to Start” or “Go Back to Jail” card? Except instead of a game, the stakes are real and learning the answer can take many more months. They wait and pray and try to distract themselves. If UNHCR hands them a Golden Ticket, an acceptance that moves them from asylum seeker status to refugee status, they are relieved and excited and have a moment of celebration.
And then? And then they wait.
A consulate officer from some country, perhaps Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, or another Western country, will interview the family for acceptance into that country. That process likewise takes many more months. Even after interviews are successfully passed for the new country, getting through medical exams, immunizations, and visa processes takes many more months. It is quicker for some than others, which is discouraging for those whose process lags. Nonetheless, the refugees are the lucky ones because they know they will be resettled, if not with the first country that interviews them, then with another. We have friends who have been accepted by UNHCR as refugees, rejected by Australia, and accepted by the US. We have friends who have been accepted by Australia but whose cohort has long since moved there while they remain in Jakarta. The refugees do a lot of waiting.
Those who are not accepted by the UN as refugees wait even longer. They can appeal their case with the UN one time. The process remains essentially the same—asylum seekers must make the case in a second interview that their home country is no longer safe for them—but the wait period is longer and more agonizing. On average, it seems, applicants here in Jakarta wait about 3 years.
“How Do They Live?”
So to get back to Melinda’s questions: What do they do? How do they live?
They play games on their phones, study if they can, cook and clean up, Skype with family members, look for free places to be outside or be entertained, window shop in malls. They just…wait.
This is one of the reasons the Learning Center started. Refugees may be short on resources, but they are long on one commodity — time.
“I can’t think of anything worse than unoccupied teenagers,” high school principal Dorothy Hoddinott and Human Rights Medal awardee said of her work with refugee students.
And it’s not just teenagers that suffer when there’s nothing to do. Young children desperately need interactions with other children, middle school students need something interesting to occupy their minds, and adults need a chance to learn English or vocational skills. With the learning center, a handful of families have a little bit more to do while they wait—they can come to our classes a few times a week.
But for most of the thousands of refugees here and elsewhere, we as a collective global society waste the one valuable resource they have by not taking advantage of their time.
Because they are barred by law from working in order to protect jobs for Indonesians (the same policy exists in other temporary host countries), refugees have no income during this long wait. A very few who had property back home have usually sold it to live off that income while they wait, and those who had savings live off those funds as long as they can. These funds usually disappear faster than homemade cookies at a Learning Center potluck, however, and the families slide into financial poverty relatively quickly. Those who can (and who can set their egos aside) ask relatives back home to wire money if they can.
But most of the refugees came here with nothing, left nothing behind, and have no one to wire money. The father who is a shepherd in rural Afghanistan and has 11 other children in the village has nothing to wire. The depressed brother who is hospitalized for drug addiction in Tehran has nothing to wire. The relatives back in Shiraz whose house fell into disrepair because they had no jobs to pay for a new roof have nothing to wire.
So the refugees, here in Jakarta without any safety net, sleep in parks or crash with other refugee families if they have nowhere to stay. A handful of people—perhaps 500 out of many thousand—receive support from an institution. In these cases, a person gets about $85 (US) to live on per month, plus a room to stay in. That money comes from organizations like the International Office for Migration, Jesuit Refugee Services, Church World Service, or sometimes private individuals. But again, only a relative handful of refugees get that meager financial support. Sometimes, in desperation and at great risk, refugees try to sell bread or kabobs to make some extra coins to feed their families. Working becomes the crime in this complex situation.
I explain all this to Melinda. “So they can’t work and they can’t go to school,” she summarizes, “but maybe if they learn English now, they’ll be able to get a job faster once they get to their new country.”
Yes, I affirm. And it’s not just having English skills, it’s having a place where you belong, having support networks, and having a stronger state of mind to endure the long wait. That’s the best thing we can do for now. Provide friendship, fun, skills and the beginning of an education for their children—that’s what we can do. People can’t live on hope alone, but they surely can’t live without hope.