How Australia’s deterrence policies turned Indonesia into a prison without walls

On 24 August 2021, more than a thousand Afghan refugees gathered at a massive protest. I could hardly find a way to get inside it. The entire street was full of refugees, police, and media, with no vehicles allowed. But what shocked me most was seeing that the majority of refugee protesters were women and children.

I have been covering refugee protests since 2014 and had never seen women protest like this, especially from the Afghan community. These women have been in limbo for years. Their situation has led to an atmosphere of hopelessness, as they have nowhere else to go but this indefinite nonexistence.

Jakarta is the Indonesian city most affected by Covid-19. The Delta variant has ravaged the population and the infection rate continues to rise sharply. For refugees, the pandemic is not as dangerous as the life through which they have been suffering for the last decade.

The protest was an attempt to raise awareness in Indonesia of the dire situation in Afghanistan. Recent events made returning home impossible. Refugees are now demanding resettlement in Australia, Canada, the United States, or any other country. They are also anxious and worried for their family members back home whose survival is at risk under Taliban tyranny. They are impotent to save them, being themselves refugees, stranded without human rights for the foreseeable future.

‘In May, I even tried to burn myself in front of the UNHCR. Can the world understand why I want to commit suicide and why many refugees are committing suicide in Indonesia?’ asked Fouzia Taj, a thirty-thee-year-old female Afghan refugee who has been stranded in Indonesia for the last eight years. She continued:

I am thirty-five years old and still a single woman far from my family without any support for eight years. I am struggling every single day to survive here. Now my hometown and my country have fallen and all our family members are in danger. It has been nine years since I last saw them. In Indonesia, we can live legally, but we cannot study, work, or travel.

Since 2014, refugees across Indonesia have been protesting against Australia’s cruel border policy that denies resettlement to refugees, even if they are registered with the UNHCR. Protests have intensified this year, as many are mourning the loss of their fellow refugees from suicide.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, six refugees have taken their own lives in Indonesia. In January 2021, one hundred refugees gathered to mourn them at the UNHCR office in Jakarta. They hoisted coffins into the air and posted their photos on banners and held candlelit vigils for them. They said any refugee might suffer the same fate if they were to remain in limbo in Indonesia. There are refugee suicides every year and fourteen have taken their own lives since 2014.


Operation Sovereign Borders

It has been nearly a decade that Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders policies have stranded nearly 14,0000 refugees in Indonesia. In 2013, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot implemented Operation Sovereign Borders and announced that refugees who had arrived by boat after July 2013 would never be resettled in Australia.

I myself have been a hostage for nine years in service of Australian deterrent policies. In 2013, after fleeing genocide in Myanmar, I thought to seek asylum in Australia and I risked my life crossing dangerous borders all the way, from Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, to Indonesia. I had to sleep in the jungle and was abused by smugglers and at any time, I could have been shot dead by the border forces at these borders. Now, it feels like I have been through all this just to be trapped by Australia’s anti-refugee politics.

Just like refugees detained on Manus and Nauru islands, refugees in Indonesia are trapped by Australia’s deterrent policies. However, those refugees in Indonesia have been neglected by the international community and our cries have been hardly heard by the media. Australians have hardly realized Australia’s other offshore policy: the creation of a ‘buffer zone’ in Indonesia. 

In its determination to garner support from hardliners obsessed with ‘protecting the border,’ Australia has created detention facilities and concentration camps, resolving to keep refugees marooned in Indonesia as a deterrent to others. The Australian government is telling its citizens that only the toughest policies will keep the borders safe.

Australia is well aware of the consequences of its policies on refugees. It has therefore enlisted the IOM to carry out its policy agenda. This is in order to avoid being responsible for persecution or oppression of refugees, as its policy intention was to employ punitive measures against refugees and make refugees’ lives as hard as possible. Australia uses pawns to protect its border and compel us to inform others through their friends, relatives, or family about our difficult situation and serve us as an example to tell them that, ‘This is what can happen to them if they come to Indonesia hoping to go to Australia.’


Regional cooperation between Australia and Indonesia 

In 2000, Australia, Indonesia, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) established a tripartite regional cooperation agreement. Under the agreement, Indonesia agreed to intercept the refugees en route to Australia and detain them in centres throughout the archipelago until they are agreed to go back home. Australia agreed to pay for detention centres and the repatriation costs for refugees wishhing to return home, the funds being through the IOM. If intercepted asylum seekers express a wish to claim protection, they are then referred by the IOM to the UNHCR. Even if they are recognised to be refugees by the UNHCR, they are still detained for three to five years or more. 

The IOM, therefore, controls the immigration movement in Indonesia on behalf of Australia. This includes expanding and providing services to detention centres, repatriating refugees and asylum seekers, strengthening border controls in Indonesia, and launching ‘public awareness campaigns’ to prevent people from travelling to Australia by boat to seek asylum. These includes television, newspaper, and radio advertisements.

Asher Hirsh, a Senior Policy Officer with the Refugee Council of Australia has given some numbers about the IOM Indonesia operations:

Australia’s annual global funding of IOM has increased from US$17 million in 2001 to $72 million in 2016. Of Australia’s global IOM funding, most goes to Indonesia. Australia has contributed $238 million to IOM Indonesia since 2001. IOM Indonesia has thus come to rely on Australia for more than 80% of its funding. While some of this funding can be described as ‘humanitarian,’ over 90% of the funding has focused on migration control.

‘This idea was assisted because of fear of Muslim people and terrorism. Later, in the 2010s, the justification changed to say that it was designed to stop people drowning at sea,’ says Dr Amy Nethery, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Policy at Deakin University. Dr Nethery researches the development and impact of asylum policies in Australia and Asia, with a focus on transnational cooperation on border control. Most refugees like me are actually fleeing terrorism, war, and conflict to seek peace elsewhere.

Muhamad (full name withheld), an Iraqi refugee in Cisarua, one hour drive from Jakarta, has been stranded in Indonesia for the last seven years:

The reason why I fled my country, Iraq, is not that I was struggling to survive. I had a good job in a currency exchange company and was very comfortable with my life. I left my country because I refused to join a terrorist group in Iraq. When I refused them,, they announced a statement that I have become ‘kafar’ (I become non-muslim) that I should be killed wherever I am found.

As Dr Nethery put it ‘it is true that seeking asylum by boat is an extremely risky and unsafe thing to do but without any other options (ie air travel), many asylum seekers do not have a choice.’

I had no choice but to risk my life in an ‘illegal way’. In 1982, Rohingya citizenship was revoked by the military government. It is not an option for me to get a passport and leave by air. The only option for me was to take a risky boat journey to Australia to seek asylum as it has promised to welcome refugees whether they arrived by boat or by air.


Journey to Australia

In mid-February 2013, I arrived in Jakarta and got on a boat to Australia with around fifty asylum-seekers from different countries. We did not make it there as the boat engine broke down in international waters. By morning, the Indonesian border forces took us on a speedboat and we sailed for nearly five hours to Jakarta. There, the police drove us to a hotel where we were interviewed by immigration officers. The only thing they wanted to know was if I was trying to reach Australia. Other asylum-seekers and refugees, who did not take a boat to Australia, could actually live freely in Jakarta. Because I was headed for Australia, they detained me in Indonesia. I was locked in hotel rooms 24/7 for three months.

One night, some of us tried to escape from our hotel when Kolimullah, a twenty-one-year old Rohingya, fell off the roof. He was beaten by the locals, who then handed him to immigration officers, who beat him again. Later at the hospital, he died. We were arrested and locked again in our hotel room. After three months, I was transferred to an actual detention centre in North Sulawesi, Manado.

When I arrived at the detention, I was scared to see these giant walls and electric fans.  I had never been to jail in my life. I was just a nineteen-year-old boy who did not know anything about world politics and did not think I would ever be put in jail like this. 

In the detention centre, I saw hundreds more refugees from different countries, Afghanistan, Pakistani, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq, and many more, all of whom had the same destination—Australia.

Once I saw an old man with two children coming down the stairs from another building. I asked a refugee nearby who these people were. He said they are from Afghanistan and they have been in that building for ten years, only because they refused the repatriation. Later, in 2019, my friend, Sajad, 20 years old, one of the sons from the family, set himself on fire and died at the hospital when they were forced to be deported back to Afghanistan.

After nearly two years of imprisonment, I was transferred to the IOM community house in Makassar. There, I received a questionnaire from Australia’s government that read, ‘If you remain in Indonesia and not take a boat to Australia, they would resettle you through the UNHCR.’ I have since stopped believing their words.

‘Refugees in Indonesia find themselves there with nowhere left to go. They cannot go back to their home country because of the risk of persecution and death. Refugees are, therefore ‘stuck’ – we know people have been stuck for a decade or longer,’ Dr Nehery explained. Due to the pandemic, resettlement places to third countries have been reduced or even paused indefinitely.


Psychological trauma

‘I do not have a life … I do not have a soul … I forget everything … I die every day here. I cannot work. I am old now. I cannot marry because I do not have money,’ says Muhamad, grappling with his mental health crisis.

Since Australia has succeeded in stopping the boats, and greatly reduced the number of refugees coming to Indonesia, the detention facility was removed in 2018. But the policy produced untold psychological trauma for the stranded and remaining refugees in Indonesia. The Australian government appears to believe that the sight of fellow refugees driven to despair by continuous delays and with no prospect of an end to their hopeless situation will drive others to give up and accept offers for voluntary repatriation.

To further destroy the hopes of refugees, Australia has gradually reduced its resettlement numbers. Now, using the pandemic as an excuse, Australia has not resettled a single refugee this year from Indonesia according to UNHCR data. In 2019, Australia resettled sixty-six refugees from Indonesia, and forty-one in 2020.

Australia’s influence in the region has also affected refugee people chances for resettlement to other third countries, as they gradually adopt the most punishing aspects of Australia’s policies. Dr Nethery points out that for resettlement countries such as the United States, Indonesia is not a priority.

In both detention and IOM accommodation, I received a lot of materials from Australia’s government, inquiring if we intended to get on a to Australia, remain in limbo in Indonesia, or go back to our home country, and further stating that if we did choose repatriation, Australia would pay 2,000 AUD plus air fare, since it would never allow us to seek refuge in us to seek refuge in Australia. A poster displayed at every IOM accommodation reads: If you are willing to return to your country, IOM will help.

Even the IOM accommodations are designed like open prisons, to never make refugees feel free or safe, and to further contribute to their permanent mental health crisis. The organisation is aware that most refugees are fleeing war and persecution in their countries and are looking for peace and a place to rebuild their lives. If they were allowed to live in peace and freedom, with basic rights, they would not accept repatriation.

IOM accommodations are no different from detention centres. The only difference is that we are allowed to go out. Otherwise, other regulations are the same as immigration detention. We can see how Indonesians are enjoying their freedom as citizens, working and studying, but we refugees can do none of these things. We are only allowed to watch them from afar.

We cannot travel more than 20 kilometres from our accommodation, nor can we spend the night out. The curfew is in place from 10 pm to 6 am, and violation of the rules can result in refugees being returned to detention centres. A sign hangs on the gate warning the locals to keep their distance from refugees and keep us isolated from the rest of the Indonesian society. We cannot maintain any relationship with locals.

Immigration officers occasionally come to threaten us. At every turn, they call us, ‘Kurang ajar’‘ a derogatory phrase. If we question them, they respond ‘this is not your country, you are an illegal immigrant here and you must follow our law. If you are not happy, you will be taken back to detention now.’ Even the security at the building, who are supposed to be respectful, are verbally abusive towards refugees.

In Makassar, the situation has recently gotten worse for refugees in IOM accommodations, as immigration authorities have tightened the rules under penalty of imprisonment in detention centres.

Refugees used to receive a monthly allowance of 1250000 Rp ($70 USD), hardly enough for them to even put two meals on the table. To go anywhere like a market or to see doctors, they need to use public transportation, which costs them their food money. Some refugees have managed to buy motorcycles with help from their family members abroad. But, on 20 April, police and immigration surrounded Anuradha accommodation and attacked refugees, confiscating their motorbikes. One of the refugees was beaten when he refused. Some were forcefully taken to detention. 

During my stay, every day, refugees would come to my room and would ask me: ‘How long are we going to live like this? When will our suffering end?’ I would wake up hearing the sounds of refugees dying or sick with no medication, or being arrested and sent back to detention. I still cannot believe a dear friend, Solim, died from severe depression in Makassar. Another poor Rohingya refugee, Muhammad Seras, is still suffering from exhaustion in a mental hospital. When I visited him in 2018, the last thing he said to me was: ‘I have seen other refugees die in these conditions. Please ask my people to give me a proper burial if I die.’

I have since been witnessing and hearing tragic stories of refugees giving up on their lives, attempting suicide or sadly succeeding. Others are dying and suffering from various mental diseases, intense depression, frustration, and hopelessness about their uncertain future, as they succumb to feelings of isolation and stagnation in indefinite limbo in Indonesia.

A good friend of mine, Muhammad Serja, died earlier this year due to medical neglect in Makassar. I helped him write several letters asking for medical help but by the time he received delay had caused a severe stomach infection, which took his life. Last month, on June 6, Salim, a twenty-five-year-old Afghani man, died due to medical neglect in Bogor, one hour drive from Jakarta. Refugees have no right to healthcare and are severely restricted in access to hospital treatment.

‘The severity and slowness of the resettlement procedure placed us under heavy pressure, depression which drove many refugee people to the edge of ending their lives because we think there’s no way out of this crisis other than taking their lives,’ said Irfan Dana, an Afghan refugee advocate and a leader in Bantam. 


Reduction of funds

It feels like we are left in the middle of the ocean without a lifejacket.

However, we have somehow learned to be patient and resilient. We have forced ourselves to live as we still hoped that one-day things will change. Unhappy that so many of us resisted and refused repatriation, in 2018 Australia announced a cut its funds to IOM. This resulted in the allowances for refugee minors being be reduced from 120 AUD to 50 AUD. Moreover, the facilities stopped accepting new asylum seekers or refugees. This inhuman policy has left nearly 7,000 refugees homeless in Jakarta, forced to fend for themselves. 

The pandemic has doubled the suffering for these refugees in Jakarta as they have zero access to any form of assistance, including financial support and shelter, and are denied government free medical services. Before COVID-19, some would carry out activities that enabled them to secure a basic livelihood and some received help from their family members or relatives, but the pandemic has blocked most of these channels and forced some of these refugees to stand outsides UNHCR centres begging for help.

Refugees are sleeping on the sidewalk. They look exhausted, frustrated and very stressed. At the protest, they say: ‘We feel like we are abandoned here. No one cares for us. Sometimes, we receive food donations from locals, but most of the time, we have nothing to eat and drink.’ They shout the slogan: ‘Justice, equality and fair process for resettlement.’. In Kalideres, Jakarta, around 250 refugee people are sheltered in an abandoned military building without running water or electricity. Most of them are now sleeping on the street outside the UNHCR office.

Australia is well aware that Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee’s convention, and will never allow refugees to have access to their basic rights. In the absence of effective domestic legal protection mechanisms for refugees and according to Indonesian domestic law No. 6 of 2011 on Immigration, asylum seekers and refugees are considered to be illegal. This also prevents refugees from seeking legal assistance and holds Australia accountable for the violation of refugees’ rights and its obligation to the international community.

Dr Nethery says Australia is responsible for refugees in Indonesia in two ways:

First, by stopping its refugee resettlement intake from Indonesia and stopping asylum seekers travelling by boat to Australia, it has blocked an important pathway for people who need protection.

By not signing the convention, Indonesia can push the responsibility for refugees to the international community, even benefit as Australia spends billions of dollars on refugees’ policies on Indonesian soil.

‘Legally, they are just in limbo. It makes us feel very sad because we cannot give them a sustainable solution unless the government could do something,’ said Foray Nadia, a local refugee advocate and a student majoring in international relations at BraWijaya University. She is coordinating with a local NGO, Bigig, to provide food to refugee people at the protest. Hussain Ramazan Rafit, an Afghan refugee activist in Jakarta, added that they previously protested at the Presidential office and Supreme Court, but to no avail.

We refugees are given only two options; remain in limbo or repatriate. But the majority of refugees in Indonesia are from the world’s most persecuted minorities: Hazaras from Afghanistan, Rohingyas from Myanmar, and others from war-torn countries, such as Somalia and Sudan, for whom repatriation is not an option as genocide, persecution, and political instability are still ongoing in their countries.


What needs to be done?

Although the UNHCR and IOM claim to be the pillars of human rights protection in the world, in Indonesia, they have chosen to actively support Australia’s deterrence policy against refugees, which contravenes the 1951 UNHCR Declaration on Refugees. Firstly, therefore, both organisations must be held responsible for their silence over Australia’s deterrence policy, and for their active involvement in this crime.

Secondly, Australia’s refugee policies and its influence in border policing have affected the refugees’ chances for resettlement as other countries are adopting their most punishing aspects of these policies. The boat turnback policy also violates Indonesia’s sovereignty. Australia’s border protection regime denies the refugees their human rights and contravenes international law. Furthermore, Australia has failed to uphold its commitment to the 1951 UN Declaration on Refugees, which explicitly forbids ‘refoulement’ and punitive policies.

However, it should not be assumed that Refugees want to resettle in Australia at any cost. Refugees will only pursue the closest option that provides safety and the opportunity of a peaceful life. Australia’s role in damaging refugees’ prospects for the quest of protection means it must compensate all the refugees detained and withheld in Indonesia for the suffering that its discriminatory policies have caused. Australian refugee policies have failed to uphold the principles of international law and thus constitute a crime against humanity.

Thirdly, Indonesia, while having shown kindness by hosting large numbers of refugees, has failed to uphold their rights and dignity. Moreover, the Indonesian government has not taken any action to mitigate the worst effects of Australia’s discriminatory policies. Rather, both governments have colluded by barring refugees based on Indonesia from any prospects of resettlement in Australia and/or elsewhere. This is unacceptable and both governments must negotiate to achieve resettlement for all refugees, without discrimination.

Finally, Indonesia’s government could reduce our suffering by lifting all restrictions. A good policy initiative would be to issue Refugee Temporary Stay Permit Cards to refugees in transit to resettlement, allowing us to work legally. Such a policy would not only improve refugees’ health and dignity but would also enable us to pay taxes to the Indonesian government. More importantly, we would be able to contribute to the local economy through our labour, talents and allegiance, building communities and working with all Indonesians towards a brighter future. We also ask Indonesia to use its influence with Australia to ask for an increase in Australia’s annual refugee intake from Indonesia.

The refugees believe in and respect international expertise and goodwill in human rights and refugee resettlement. As members of a vulnerable refugee population, we, the refugees of Indonesia, seek the intervention of the international community to bring us a safe future. Failing this, refugees in Indonesia will continue to be trapped within harsh systems and condemned to slow death by attrition.

 ‘Our families are dying in Afghanistan and we are dying here,’ said one of the protestors. ‘Being in this country, we cannot do anything to help them. We are trapped here with no basic right to live like normal human beings. We want resettlement to third countries so we can save our families before the Taliban slaughter them all.’


Image: JN Joniad

Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The condition of refugees live in Indonesia is very worrying ?
    They are live around 10 years without any human rights
    We call for the resettlement of Afghan refugees from Indonesia as soon as possible

  2. A terrific, well-researched and devastatingly accurate article, JN Joniad. Thank you for writing it. Thanks to Overland for publishing it. Australia’s cruelty to refugees is despicable and depraved.

  3. Sadly Labour and Liberal in Australia do not differ much on these terrible policies… It actually was then Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who “announced that refugees who had arrived by boat after July 2013 would never be resettled in Australia”.

  4. we strongly urge from the Australia govt to relinquish of its tough and inhuman policy regarding refugees in Indonesia We Came to Indonesia to protect our lives but in here we are being tortured mentally and physically to death by being kept for almost a decade.

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