Indefinite limbo drives refugees to take their own lives in Indonesia

On 14 December 2020, nearly six hundred Refugees gathered at the UNHCR office in Jakarta with three coffins to represent their fellow refugees who committed suicide last month.  Their pictures were displayed on banners along with seven refugees who had taken their lives since 2014. 

Last December, two Hazara refugees, Muhammad Ikaram and Adul Hussian, hanged themselves in Jabodetabek, while thirty-year-old Qasem Musa is thought to have killed himself at the Immigration detention  in Medan on October 26. 

’We want justice over the years we have suffered in limbo,’ said Mehidi Ali Zada, a Hazara refugees’ representative in Jakarta.

We mourned them with candlelight and protested at the UNHCR office. We request to accelerate our resettlement process to third countries because we have no basic rights here. We cannot go to university and work here, and we are suffering mentally which compels us to commit suicide and we want Indonesia and world to realise our situation.

Refugees protested that the cause of their deaths is the indefinite limbo they have been trapped in for more than a decade and the neglect of relevant NGOs and resettlement countries. ‘So, on Monday, we wanted to speak to UNHCR to ask if they have any solution for us to save our lives,’ Mehedi added. 

Muhammad Ikaram was a twenty-five-year-old father of three.  After fleeing Afghanistan, he arrived in Indonesia hoping to reunite with his brother in Australia in 2013. In July of that year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that refugees arriving by boat would never be resettled in Australia. Muhammad was accommodated in a shelter run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bogor, a one-hour from Jakarta. He since waited for eight years UNHCR to help him resettle in Australia, trapped in a state of uncertainty that resulted in anxiety, depression and stress over his daily survival. ‘The day before he committed suicide, he was with us until midnight. But the next day, he disappeared,’ said his friends who shared the same building with him. One of them found him dead in his accommodation on December 5. 

Indonesia hosts around 14,000 refugees, most of whom are Hazara from Afghanistan who have been subjected to persecution, discrimination and genocide, with targeted and mass killings continuing to this day.  Indonesia used to be a transit point for many refugees who arrived hoping to make their way to Australia, like Ikaram.  Australia had a good reputation of treating refugees humanely. 

In 2013, everything changed with the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders. The impact of this policy goes beyond the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. It also manifested itself through money and political influence in Indonesia, which has indirectly become another detention centre for refugees turned away from Australia. Those who have died in Manus and Nauru are countable. In Indonesia, the true number of deaths is unknown.

‘We are invisible to the media and society, and neglected by almost every governmental organization. We are locked away, out of sight and out of mind for both Australians and Indonesians,’ said a refugee in Jakarta who preferred not to be identified.

While refugees were mourning Ikaram, another thirty-eight-year-old Hazara refugee, Adul Hussein, gave up on his life. He had arrived in Indonesia in the critical year, 2014, when Scott Morrison announced that refugees registered with UNHCR would no longer be able to resettle in Australia.  This move forced the separation of refugees from their parents and other family members, who usually remained stuck in their home countries.  Abdul lamented to his friends the difficulty of being separated from his wife and child back home. He took his own life on the fifth floor of a community housing centre for asylum-seekers in Tangerang. 

‘When we come to Indonesia, we expect to resettle to a third country in two or three years, but we are stuck forever, and we are suffering financially and mentally without our basic rights.  Our family gave up on us.  We received very little help from the NGOs. We worry so much about our future. We have already spent eight to ten years in Indonesia and we don’t know how long we are going to be trapped in Indonesia,’ explains Mehidi.

Indonesia continues to refuse to sign the UN refugee convention. Refugees cannot work, seek formal education and are restricted in their movement within the country and cities. They are effectively turned into illegal immigrants, kept under surveillance and ostracised by the rest of society.

‘When we realize we are treated not equally and viewed differently and the hope to get the chance to experience equality and freedom is slim, we find ourselves under critically severe pressure, which causes irreplaceable psychological and mental damages,’ says Erfan Dana, a refugee community leader in Batam.

Most refugees suffer from mental disorders and receive little psychological counselling as they languish in the ghetto situation in Jakarta.  As Kevin Yau, a psychotherapist, recently told me

most of the refugees that I meet suffer from trauma and depression. Some less fortunate cases are severe symptoms of PTSD. They come from hostile situations with a traumatic past and their experience of leaving their countries. There is the issue of adapting to the environment, the financial issues, and the cultural differences that can leave them feeling alienated and not seeing any hope through the process of asylum.

UNHCR said it can take up to 25 years or more to resettle refugees as the resettlement countries are reluctant to take them and are constantly reducing their intakes. This is demonstrated through the indefinite stall and delay of the resettlement process towards safe third countries, which in turn destroys the refugee’s wellbeing and takes away any hope of eventual freedom from persecution, isolation and exclusion, as well as any opportunity to rebuild their lives.

Most of these refugees belong to some of the world’s most persecuted minorities, including Rohingya. It is nearly impossible for them to be repatriated to their countries of origin while they are stuck in Indonesia.

As a writer, reporting on these stories breaks me emotionally. Yet I feel that it’s only the beginning of what’s to come as people are deprived of their basic right to live as human beings. Most refugees I have met are experiences mental crises so severe that it is difficult for them to remember even their own birthdays. With no work or ways to pass the time, most of them languish through the day suffering from insomnia, depression and stress over daily survival. Single and unaccompanied refugees are particularly vulnerable as they have no-one to support them. 

I have been writing and striving to address and raise the awareness of the suffering of refugees in Indonesia for nearly three years, but I have not yet seen any significant change and improvement in the situation. Indonesia has a small number of refugees compared to countries like Bangladesh and Syria. If Australia and other safe third countries were willing to take half of them and Indonesia a third, the problem would be solved right there. But it seems unlikely that politicians will ever give up on their agendas to trap refugees and use them as pawns. 

Refugees in Indonesia need citizen awareness as they can no longer rely on politicians to restore their hope for the future. If people in the free world can spare one minute of their time and advocate for refugees, it will make a world of difference to their lives.

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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  1. Good to read your work Joniad. Hope lots of people read this and the other work you continue to produce. Thank you.

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