A lost generation of refugee children In Indonesia

‘I always wanted to be like Angelina Jolie. I have seen her helping refugees but I cannot fulfil my dream to be like her because I can’t go to school in Indonesia,’ said Adian Abdullah, a thirteen-year-old Iraqi refugee girl. She has been stranded with her family in limbo for the past four years in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Adian attended school up to grade 4 in Iraq, but in Indonesia, she has no access to education. She now worries about falling behind and says, ‘My classmates are now increasing their grades in Iraq. If there is no war in my country, I want to go back now and continue my studies.’ Adian’s mother added, ‘It is painful to see my children growing up illiterate. As a mother, my only dream was to see my children well-educated in the future.’

According to the latest figures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 3,893 refugee children under the age of eighteen in Indonesia. As Indonesia is not a party to the UN refugee’s convention, UNHCR, it does not recognise refugees’ human rights. The 2016 presidential decree regulating the handling of refugees does not provide any pathway for refugee children to integrate into local schools.

To enrol at school, refugees are traditionally required to show legal documents such as passports, travel permits and family registration cards. The majority of refugees who fled war and conflict to save their lives don’t have such documents. As Shaffira Gayatri, board member of HELP for Refugees Indonesia, notes: ‘The government has issued a circular letter that provides instructions and guidance for refugee children to enter state primary schools. However, the implementation tends to be inconsistent across the country.’

In 2019, at the request of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 320 refugee children were allowed to attend local schools from kindergarten to secondary levels as visiting students. However, they will not be given any recognition of their graduation. Zico Pestalozzi, a human rights lawyer and program manager at Suaka in Jakarta, explains that ‘refugee students will not be issued formal certificates or diplomas because currently there is no mechanism in place to give refugee students certificates and include them into the National Education Database.’

A Rohingya family with four children has been living in IOM accommodation in Makassar for the past seven years. The children have been accepted as visiting students at a local school. Abdurrahman, the father, said, ‘My children always cry after coming back from school. They say that local children eat snacks at school and play among themselves and do not like to play with them. My children also walk to school while local children use transportations and personal cars. IOM gives $30 per month for each child. It is barely enough to provide them with three times of food each day.’

In 2016, Adian’s family left Iraq to escape war and political instability. Her father, Abdullah, a former lawyer, says: ‘I was a member in a counsel of justice ministry. Having faced constant threats from the followers of Saddam Hussein and witnessed many of my friends and colleagues’ deaths, I fled my country to seek refuge in Indonesia.’ The family has since been recognised as refugees by UNHCR and have been living in Boger, the west Jakarta province, where there is no school that accepts Adian and three siblings.  

In recent years, refugee volunteers have established 12 informal learning centres to teach the children basic education such as English, math and basic science and general knowledge.  If the students are able to complete the courses, they are then able to take the ‘GED’ (General Education Diploma) and will receive a diploma certificate.

Brandon Baughn, program director at Roshan Learning centre in Jakarta, has said: ‘this diploma is equivalent to one awarded to high school students who do not graduate in a traditional way and progress into grade 12 in the United States. This later enables them to pursue higher education in resettlement countries.’ However, few students reach this stage and twenty students have been enrolled in this exam at Roshan this year.

These centres are entirely funded by overseas donations as government and major refugee agencies do not support them.  Sikandar Ali, the principal of RLC (Refugee Learning Center) outside of Jakarta, has said: ‘some of our students are not able to take classes regularly due to transportation costs, and we cannot help them. We have 33 teachers and staff. We cannot even adequately cover our own transportation fees from the donations we receive.’ 

Adain’s father explains: ‘As I am not allowed to work, I can hardly provide them with daily necessities and pay rent for the house with donations and help I received from my family and relatives in Iraq. I cannot afford to send them to any learning centre.’

Since Australia closed its borders, refugees and asylum seekers have been stranded in an indefinite limbo in Indonesia. While they wait for a third-country resettlement, which UNHCR said could take up to twenty-five years or more, they are unable to rebuild their lives with no human rights as Indonesia positioned itself as only a transit country for refugees and denied to integrate them locally in the country. According to Mozhgan Moaref, a human rights advocate and founder of RAIC (Refugee & asylum seekers information centres):

Refugees in Indonesia are not living. They are just alive. With no basic rights to work, travel, public healthcare and education, they are living as aliens and are not being recognized; they are treated as less than human.  

In March 2018, Australia’s reduced the (IOM) fund that provides refugees with shelter and a monthly allowance has also left nearly 5000 refugees to fend for themselves with no right to work and cut the educational opportunities to many children. In Kalideres Camp, in a sub-district of West Jakarta, where the government has placed 250 of these homeless refugees, forty-five children whose age ranges from ten to sixteen have zero access to any kind of education.

Hassan Ramazan, the refugee community representative at Kalideres, further explains: ‘we don’t receive any support from the government or IOM.  We have nothing here for refugee children. The only education they can have is what we voluntarily teach them, which is basic English language at the mosque; and even then, we only have one book for all of the children.’

Zakir Hussain, a twenty-five-years old Hazara refugee at Kalideres, says: ‘we hardly eat two meals a day. We are living off of the generosity of the locals and donations. We do not even have enough water and electricity. In this situation, how can we go to any learning centres?’

While I was reporting for this story, the children at Kalideres Camp asked me to include their plea: ‘we want to study, we need pens, school bags, food, drinking water, and enough electricity. Please help us.’

Mustafa, a Sudan refugee, added: ‘if we are not allowed to go to school and university, and receive no help from the world, then what will happen to us and what will become of us in the future?’

Adain tries to keep busy with her daily activities, ‘I wake up at 3 pm every afternoon and I brush my teeth and wash my face and breakfast, so after that, I just have a walk with Dr Elina. We walk for 15or 20 minutes. After that, I tutor my little sister. Then, I watch TV with my family with a cup of coffee.  In the evening, I do some self-study and go to sleep late at night.’  Adian said, ‘Education in childhood is like engraving on stone.’


Image: Children at the Refugee learning Center in Cisarua

JN Joniad

JN Joniad is a Rohingya journalist and an editor of Thearchipelago.org 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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