Australians have kept their attention focused on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, but the impact of Australia’s border policies in Indonesia is thoroughly overlooked.
On Thursday 29 August, twenty-six refugees were arrested in Makassar, Indonesia after a peaceful demonstration in front of the Australian consulate. Around four hundred had gathered to protest against Australian border policies and their long stay in Indonesia.
It’s the day before the arrests, and I’m sitting on a large nylon protest banner in a park in Makassar, South Sulawesi, listening as six refugees tell me about conditions in the local immigration detention centre. They speak with urgent intensity, firing one horrific story after another.
Yousif Ibrahim Ahmad Osman arrives late. He’s tall and lean, moves rapidly and goes straight to the point. Pulling clothes and pills out of his backpack and scattering them across the banner, he explains that he carries these supplies wherever he goes. He could find himself behind bars at the end of any given day.
Twenty-four hours later, Yousif is still free, but most of the other men are locked up. The length of their detention is indefinite.
This is the sixth consecutive week of simultaneous protests in six cities across Indonesia.
Demonstrators in Makassar conveyed their ‘desperate situation’ to the Australian consulate in a letter that links their growing discontent to Australian border policies, including boat turn-backs. They argue that refugees in Indonesia are ‘being singled out to serve as an example and a deterrent.’
The letter requests the immediate repeal of policies that refuse to resettle any refugees who arrived in Indonesia after July 2014 and that limit the number of resettlements from Indonesia to Australia. It also draws attention to the restrictive conditions refugees are living under, which have led to seven suicides in the last five years and many more attempts.
There are almost 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia. Many have been there for up to seven years, and some for as long as nine years. In 2016, UNHCR informed all refugees and asylum seekers in the country that they will probably never be resettled.
Indonesia has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, and so refugees are denied the rights to work, free movement, formal study and anything that requires an ID card.
‘We are raising our voices,’ the protesters plead in exasperation. Hunger strikes go unnoticed, and weeks of demonstrations are ignored by media.
According those I spoke to, the arrested men joined another twelve refugees who were already detained as arbitrary punishment for riding motorbikes, breaking a 10 pm curfew at their accommodation, even dating Indonesian women. Legal aid and advocacy organisations were not aware of their situation. Consequently, no-one was advocating for their release.
Immigration detention ‘is like gaol’, Yousif tells me. ‘They punish us like criminals.’ Mobile phones are confiscated and rooms are raided at 4 or 5 am to check for contraband. Detainees often spend months in cells so cramped that they can’t lie down to sleep, and are allowed outside for just one hour a day.
In the park, Yousif shows me a photo. He’s standing in front of a demonstration, holding a megaphone. His face has been circled in red. In the days before these arrests, protest organisers were targeted by immigration authorities with calls and text messages, threatening detention if demonstrations continued.
Even after those arrests, refugees continued their protest outside the UNHCR office in Makassar. Within a week, seven hundred asylum seekers gathered outside Makassar’s immigration detention centre, demanding their friends be released or for all of them to be arrested. ‘Because we have no choice,’ Yousif states. ‘They don’t make any crime, they just ask for their rights. If they don’t want to release them, we must also be arrested.’
Australia once took the largest number of resettlements from Indonesia, followed by the United States. Since both countries have restricted their intake, refugees are staying in the country for increasingly longer periods. As the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and various Indonesian authorities jostle over whose responsibility they are, a health and homelessness crisis is mounting.
At the same time as demonstrating refugees were arrested in Makassar, homeless asylum seekers were being evicted from a disused military compound in Jakarta. Since mid-July, more than one thousand asylum seekers have been staying in the former West Jakarta Military Command, relying on donations of food, and living with inadequate sanitation and without running water. When I visited, in August, there were ten portaloos on the site. Five were locked, unable to be used, and the remaining five were filthy. Families showed me eye infections, skin diseases, coughs, told me of chronic urinary tract infections and complained of illness rapidly spreading.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Indonesia provides basic accommodation to approximately 8,200 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, but stopped accepting new cases when Australia, its largest donor, reduced funding in March 2018.
As homelessness becomes a growing problem, Jakarta authorities provided the disused military site as a temporary shelter until the end of August. Predictably, as the eviction date approached, the situation of asylum seekers hadn’t improved. Thomas Vargas, the UNHCR Representative in Indonesia, visited the site on 31 August, announcing ‘we are trying to give them the tools to be able to take care of themselves.’ Families were offered cash payments of around $160-180 if they agreed to leave. That is not enough to secure ongoing housing, even of the most basic kind. With nowhere to go but the street, more than five hundred people have refused to take the money and are staying put.
Ten years ago, Australia was investing heavily in Operation Sovereign Borders. Australian dollars were directed towards training Indonesian authorities to intercept anyone suspected of attempting to get on a boat, as well ‘public information campaigns’ aimed at both Indonesians and asylum seekers. Crucially, funds were also directed towards Indonesian immigration detention centres, where thousands of asylum seekers were sent.
Australian funding for detention, information campaigns and basic accommodation has been distributed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Indonesia. Distributing resources through IOM allows Indonesia to assert that sovereignty isn’t being compromised by Australian government interference in domestic affairs. It also affords the Australian government the means to reduce transparency and accountability.
What’s happening in Indonesia is a product of the same logic that drives Australia’s presence in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. They are punitive measures that push a hard border out from Australia’s geographical shores and into neighbouring countries. It’s also part of a global trend. The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees acknowledged that 85% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries and urges a more equitable sharing of responsibility.
Since boats have stopped leaving Indonesia, Australian attention and resources have been steadily withdrawn. What’s left is funding for IOM Indonesia to provide shabby accommodation to around 8,200 refugees and asylum seekers, and healthcare only in life-threatening situations. Indonesian authorities are facing mounting tensions, homelessness and health problems, and are ill-equipped to respond effectively. For the refugees and asylum seekers, there is no way forward or backward. They are slowly being starved out.
Scott Morrison claims boat turn backs are a success, but what lies on the other side of that policy is being ignored. Boats of asylum seekers aren’t leaving Indonesia, but not one of the scores of people I spoke to feel their life has been saved. In place of a quick death by bomb blast, war at home, or drowning at sea, they feel they’ve been left to slowly wither and perish in Indonesia.
When the protesters were being arrested, Yousif was sitting at the hospital by the body of his friend, thirty-one year-old Nasr Edlin Mohamed Hassan. Nasr had sought medical care for years in Indonesia, but by the time he got to hospital, it was too late. The pair, both from Sudan, had spent six years together in detention, demonstrations, and shelters across Indonesia.
‘I cannot die in my accommodation, I must do something.’ Yousif says. ‘Seven years is not a short time, it is a very long time. We need to live like other humans.’
Protests are ongoing in six Indonesian cities.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This reporting was funded by the Walkley Public Fund.
Image: Refugees on hunger strike in front of the UNHCR building, Jakarta, 21 August 2019. (Nicole Curby.)