Refugees in Indonesia Hoped for Brief Stay. Many May Be Stuck for Life.
Posted January 27, 2018 5:02 p.m. EST
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Ibrahim Adam fled armed conflict in his home region of Darfur, Sudan, in 2011, and ended up seeking asylum in Indonesia, hoping to be eventually resettled in Australia or another Western country so he could resume his dream of being an economist.
But after languishing for nearly seven years in Indonesia — where he cannot legally work, access public services or obtain citizenship — Ibrahim recently received bad news: His resettlement is unlikely to ever happen.
The U.N. Refugee Agency’s office in Indonesia has begun informing the nearly 14,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Indonesia that they should not expect to be welcomed by another country. Instead, they should prepare to assimilate into Indonesian society as best they can, or consider returning to their strife-torn countries.
“Still no home, and no hope,” said Ibrahim, 33, who was granted U.N. refugee status in 2015.
Globally, there are more than 24 million certified refugees and asylum-seekers, the highest levels since World War II, according to the United Nations. Historically, the chances of refugees ever being resettled are only around 1 percent.
Those refugees residing in Indonesia face the additional obstacle that the United States and Australia, the two main resettlement destinations for refugees here, have put in place more stringent immigration policies, further decreasing their already long odds.
“We are as honest as we can be, and try to explain to them how unpredictable things are,” said Thomas Vargas, head of the U.N. Refugee Agency office in Indonesia. “We’re trying to tell them, ‘Have realistic expectations,’ because we’re having a global crisis and there are limited options.”
Vargas added: “In general, resettlement countries were more generous in the past about providing opportunities in this part of the world.”
For years, asylum-seekers from the Middle East and South Asia have used Indonesia as a transit point to reach Australia, boarding rickety wooden boats run by human smugglers for the perilous voyage across the Indian Ocean.
In 2013, however, the Australian government adopted strict new measures to discourage future arrivals by immediately transferring those who made it to its shores to spartan detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and refusing to ever consider them for resettlement.
Australia has also towed boats packed with asylum-seekers back into Indonesian waters, and has banned the resettlement of refugees who registered with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Indonesia after July 1, 2014.
The situation of refugees hoping for resettlement in the West became more dire after President Donald Trump took office last January. His administration’s travel ban blocks people from eight countries from entering the United States, including Somalia, the country with the second-highest number of refugees and asylum-seekers stuck in Indonesia.
The Trump administration is planning to cap the number of global refugees allowed to immigrate to the United States at as low as 40,000 for fiscal 2018. Last year, only about 400 refugees living in Indonesia were resettled in the United States, according to the United Nations.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, which prohibits governments from returning people fleeing persecution to areas where they face serious threats, but the country has allowed certified refugees to remain here as they await resettlement in a third country. Indonesia also allows asylum-seekers to wait in the country as their cases are examined by the United Nations.
Indonesian officials, however, say that permanent resettlement here is not an option.
“Indonesia is only a transit country, to accommodate migrants to their destination country,” said Agung Sampurno, a spokesman for the Directorate General of Immigration. “If the U.N. asks us to make it permanent, Indonesia can’t do that.” Thomas Brown, an Australian researcher who focuses on refugee issues in Indonesia, said it was a punch in the gut for refugees and asylum-seekers to hear from the United Nations that they may never leave the country.
“There is a real possibility that some may never be resettled in their lifetime,” Brown said.
Such a dead end is beyond the comprehension of Hamid Amini and Ali Azimi, two 18-year-olds from Afghanistan who made their way to Indonesia as unaccompanied minors in 2014 and 2015, after fleeing attacks by the Taliban against their ethnic minority Hazara communities.
Both have been granted refugee status by the United Nations but were forced to move out of a shelter for refugee minors in Jakarta, run by an international aid organization, when they turned 18. They have been surviving on private donations since.
“We have a dark life,” Azimi said.
Still, Amini has more reason to hope than many Indonesian refugees.
He said he had received a resettlement approval notification in February from the U.S. government but is still waiting for clearance to fly, months later.
By comparison, his friend and fellow Afghan refugee, Sardar Hussain, who received resettlement approval during the final weeks of the Obama administration, was on a plane bound for Los Angeles just days later, and is now settled in Washington state.
Amini said he fears the Trump administration’s immigration policies have effectively frozen his resettlement in America.
“We all know about Trump,” Amini said. “Mr. Trump is a president. He should look at refugees as humans.” The International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency, is assisting more than 8,400 refugees and asylum-seekers in Indonesia, including those being held in immigration detention centers and those living among local communities.
The organization also runs a voluntary repatriation program for refugees who opt to return home rather than waiting in limbo here for the increasingly unlikely possibility of being resettled.
Mark Getchell, the IOM’s chief of mission in Indonesia, said the policy changes in Australia and the United States, combined with a reluctance by Canada, New Zealand and European nations to take in additional refugees, means the number of resettlements are only about 400 people a year now in Indonesia.
That is less than 3 percent of the total refugee and asylum-seeker population in Indonesia, whose levels have remained constant at around 14,000 in recent years.
IOM is funding vocational training courses for refugees, ranging from furniture-making to cutting hair to giving massages and manicures. It is also providing access to online study courses for minors and adults.
Vargas, head of the U.N. Refugee Agency office in Indonesia, said the agency continues to urge refugees here to “hope for the best and prevent the worst,” stressing that learning new work and educational skills could make them more attractive to potential resettlement countries.
But for many, job skills may not be enough. Families, single women with children and unaccompanied minors are given priority for resettlement in the United States and other Western countries among refugees in Indonesia, as they are designated as “most vulnerable,” according to the United Nations.
This does not sit well with Ibrahim, from Darfur, who received an economics degree from Alneelian University in Khartoum, Sudan, in 2009, and earns much-needed income in Jakarta by surreptitiously teaching English classes at local public schools.
“They have to give me a chance also,” he said.
Analysts said Ibrahim faces additional obstacles: He is single, Muslim and of military age, which could make countries worried about terrorism less likely to take him in.
Ibrahim bristles at the suggestion that he is a security risk.
“I’m not suffering here so I can then go and attack someone,” he said. “I just want to live.”