Asylum seekers on the doorstep of UN office in Jakarta with nowhere to turn

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By Michael Bachelard

Jakarta: For Sardar “Sammy” Hussein, barely more than a boy, the words he’s whispering under his breath have become almost a mantra: “What should I do? What should I do?”

We’re sitting on a doorstep across the road from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in central Jakarta, which has become the outdoor sleeping quarters of a shifting, multicultural band of asylum seekers with no money and nowhere else to go.

sardarHomeless: Sardar “Sammy” Hussein, originally from Afghanistan, is camped out in front of the UNHCR office in Jakarta. Photo: Michael Bachelard.

Hussein, a Hazara from Afghanistan, is the newest arrival. He’s 15 and has bedded down here since arriving in Indonesia a week ago.

Hussein says he did not know when he left Afghanistan about Scott Morrison’s new policy to ignore refugee applications from people who arrived in Indonesia after July 1. He knows now that he will never get his wish of resettlement in Australia, but says he probably would have come anyway. He feels he had no choice.

“My mother was sick . . . and she wanted to go from Jaghory to Kabul for the doctor. On the way, beside the road, there was a bomb. When they got close in the taxi, the bomb exploded,” he says.
sardar1 Uncertain future: Sardar “Sammy” Hussein, a new arrival in Indonesia from Afghanistan is now wondering what he will do after Scott Morrison’s hardline policy changes. Photo: Michael Bachelard

Hussein’s mother, father and sister were all killed. He fled for his life, selling the family’s possessions and paying a people smuggler $US6000 ($7200). Now he has no money and faces an indeterminate wait in Indonesia, where he cannot go to school or earn a living.

“I don’t know what I should do. How can I continue?” he asks in tentative English. “My future. My learning. My training. My sport. When my father and mother were alive, I was very relaxed, but now I am hard of my life. This is all the adventure of my life.”

Would he go back to Afghanistan? “No, never. I don’t want to go back.”

Mr Morrison announced on November 18 that Australia would cut its annual intake from Indonesia from 600 people to 450, and that anyone arriving after July 1 will not be eligible to apply. The intention, he said, was to “drain the pool” of asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia.

The policy switch threw asylum seekers here into consternation. Since the boats stopped, the vast majority had been waiting on those few resettlement places. Some now see little hope but to continue waiting, though they have broadened their hopes to include resettlement in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Germany.

“Previously they were thinking [they’d need to wait] three years; now it’s four or five years. Maybe six,” a source said.

But more are still arriving, many of them young men. A large group of 15 to 18 men arrived last week in Cisarua, saying they did so despite full knowledge of the new Australian policy.

The Afghans are coming because the Taliban has been made more assertive by the withdrawal this year of foreign troops. Former Hazara boltholes such as Pakistan and Iran are no longer safe.

But among those waiting, many are struggling financially. Refugee sources say some are suffering malnutrition and getting sick. Some consider marrying Indonesians and trying to stay legally. A few with money have gone back to their countries, usually to leave again seeking asylum elsewhere, particularly on the dangerous land or sea routes to Europe.

But “more and more people” are considering presenting themselves at a detention centre because they “don’t have resources to live on their own”, a refugee who wanted to remain anonymous said.

Official figures show the number “self-reporting” to Indonesia’s 13 detention centres was already increasing as a result of Australian policies, even before the latest announcement. Almost 500 people showed up at the locked gates in October and that number is expected to increase further.

The centres are already often squalid, they are significantly overcrowded, and they are a strain on the Indonesian national budget. More than 10,500 people are stranded in Indonesia and registered with the UNHCR. The new Indonesian government is confused about how to respond to another unilateral policy change by Australia.

Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly recently floated the idea of putting asylum seekers on an island set aside for the purpose. In the Suharto era, hundreds of thousands of Indochinese refugees were interned on Galang Island off Sumatra, which became a byword for illness, rape and suicide.

Indonesia’s new ministers are under pressure from President Joko Widodo to take action but Ferdinand Siagian, a spokesman for the ministry of law and human rights, said no decisions had been made yet about the island proposal.

“Personally I’m confused about what we should do. We have a lot of people – thousands in [detention centres] in Medan, in Makassar. It takes billions of rupiah [hundreds of thousands of dollars] per month for their accommodation and food, and we still don’t know what to do about it,” he told Fairfax Media.

The UNHCR’s representative in Indonesia, Thomas Vargas, said it was still too early to assess the impact on his organisation of the new Australian policy. But he is starting to approach other resettlement countries to take up the slack.

“I’m confident that other states will come to the plate and provide opportunities to make up the difference at least while Australia is implementing this policy,” Mr Vargas said.

He also urged Australia to change its mind and put protection at the centre of its asylum seeker policy.

Meanwhile, according to a senior official working for an Indonesian aid agency, as people stay longer in penury in the community, or serve indefinite stints in detention, “they’ll create more problems”.

“Psychosocial problems, which we know from experience we’ll get, [are] declines in mental health and growing incidence of self-harm,” the official said.


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