Refugees will not be silent: two months of protests in Makassar

We started our protests on 6 August. We protested each day across six cities in Indonesia for nearly two months, rallying in the scorching heat in front of UNHCR offices. We chanted: ‘Justice!’ ‘Host country, hear us! ‘We are human, too!’ ‘UNHCR don’t be silent!’ ‘We need resettlement!’

We are pleading with UNHCR and the Australian government to find long-term solution. Keeping us stuck in Indonesia without basic rights has led to widespread refugee mental health and homelessness crises across many cities in Indonesia.

We have watched how successive Australian governments wanting to deter ‘boat people’ have used us as pawns in their mission to stop the boats. In 2013, the Abbott government started Operation Sovereign Borders to illegally turn back boats of asylum seekers who had risked everything to plead for safety in Australia. At the same time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, decided that no refugees who registered with UNHCR Indonesia after 1 July 2014 would ever be resettled to Australia.

In 2013, while I was trying to get on the boat to Australia to seek refuge, I was arrested and detained in Manado Detention Centre in North Sulawesi. Although I was recognised as a refugee by UNHCR, I was detained for two years. I later learnt that these detention facilities are entirely funded by Australia. It seems Australia is doing everything it can to keep us locked up.

Australia also funds the police and immigration offices and other intelligence services to intercept refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia who intend to go to Australia by boat. As refugees in Indonesia, we feel we are detained and tortured by Australia in detention centres to serve as a deterrent to others, just like refugees in Manus and Nauru are illegally detained by Australia.

Confined to Australian-funded accommodations, we are treated like cattle with no basic rights. We are prevented from living a normal life: we are detained if we attempt to work; we cannot study at school or university; we do not even have access to proper healthcare and psychological counselling; we cannot leave this city or access legal protection.

It seems that the authorities believe that driving refugees to further despair will compel them to give up and take up voluntary repatriation. This leaves us no choice but to protest despite constant threats of arrest and punishment.

In Makassar, we moved our protest outside the Australian Consulate General last month and asked Australian officials to reverse the policy that freezes our resettlement. We received a letter in response from a consular official, Richard Matthews. It read, ‘Australia funds the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and runs an Assisted Voluntary Return program for people who wish to return to their home countries.’

In other words, the response was to either be detained or kept in ‘open prisons’ by the IOM or to return home, where we face almost certain death.

UNHCR is also telling us to go back as we are likely to never be resettled because of Australian policies. The Indonesian government has told us that they did not sign the UN refugee convention so have no legal obligation towards refugees. If we wish to continue our journey, they we will not help us. Australia works together with UNHCR and Indonesia to offer us free air fares and $2,000 if we repatriate. We are being pushed from all sides to accept this so-called voluntary repatriation despite the war and persecution against us that are ongoing in the countries we fled to save our lives.

After being detained for two years and living without rights in an open prison in Makassar for a further six years, I want to go back. But as a Rohingya from Myanmar, my government will never accept me. I have no choice but to remain in Indonesia, stuck with no way to move forward or build a life here.

14,000 refugees who have been stranded throughout Indonesia for 7 to 10 years are mostly from the world’s most persecuted groups: the Hazaras have been persecuted by the Taliban and discriminated against by the Afghan government throughout history, and the Rohingya have been victims of genocide for decades and, having been stripped of citizenship, are stateless.

Over the years, some of my friends chose to ‘voluntarily repatriate’ themselves to Afghanistan, where they were reportedly killed by the Taliban. In 2016, Roh Ullah, a twenty-three-year-old Afghan deported himself to Afghanistan where he was later found dead. Like many, he was robbed of a future by these so-called ‘international systems’ that want to stop us from seeking asylum to save our lives.

We have no home to return to and no country is willing to welcome us to safety. This is why we have been protesting for the last eight weeks, but rather than being listened to by Australia and the international community, we are continually intimidated and locked up by the police.

On the third day of our protest, locals and police assaulted us, knocking a twenty-five-year-old Afghan refugee unconscious. Others were shoved and forcibly loaded into waiting for police cars. On 15 August, a government spokesperson warned us: ‘Your protests are offending Indonesian law. If you continue to do so, we will take action against you. The police will handle those who encourage other refugees to protest and detain them.’

This threat was followed with the arrest of twenty-six refugees on 29 August. We protested at the immigration detention centre for three days, but the authorities threatened not to release the detainees unless they agreed not to participate in the further protests. Mehhi, an Iranian refugee said: ‘We have been locked up in cells separated from each other for fourteen days. They forced us to sign deportation papers threatening us to lock us up forever if did not sign the paper.’ However, the deportation was aborted as UNHCR cannot deport people by force. The immigration officer released the detainees on 9 October.

This situation has caused great despair among refugees and exacerbated the mental health conditions of a community already suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression. Many of us have lost hope and have attempted suicide. Some, tragically, have succeeded. Others have died from being unable to access proper health treatment. We sleep and wake in a state of stress as we cannot see any changes in our lives: we are allowed only to eat and survive, but our humanity is denied.

Australia told the world that it wanted to regulate immigration without refugees risking their lives and resettle them through UNHCR. While we have been waiting for resettlement, Australia has cut our resettlement. We sought refuge in Australia because it signed the UN 1951 refugee convention promising to protect refugees. But we are rejected from all angles and have been pushed to our limits, marginalised, detained and tortured. This pushes us to repatriate or leaves us no option but the sea. We are asking Australia, what are we meant to do?


Image: Makassar Refugees

JN Joniad

JN Joniad is a Rohingya journalist and an editor of writers collective. As a university student in Myanmar, Joniad was forced to flee into exile. Now living as a refugee in Indonesia, he contributes to film and publishing accounts of refugees searching for a safe and durable solution.

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