I look over at my friend Jafar and am filled with relief. I am thankful he is not one of the men languishing on Manus Island right now. A refugee from Iran, who tried to get to Australia by boat, he could easily have ended up there.
We are both transients in Jakarta, albeit in very different ways.
Our lungs share the shock of the city’s thick, soupy air as we jog through the pollution-filled haze. Jafar can easily outpace me, but chooses to slow down. Barely raising a sweat, he talks constantly as I pant and drip and stumble along.
In our separate ways, we each seek a slice of sanity during our regular runs. As our feet kick up the red dust, Jafar’s words come tumbling out. He has told me all sorts of things: how he battled the authorities, trying every possible dead-end route to get his sister out of immigration detention; how relationships with him end before they start because no-one can handle his uncertain future; how all he hopes for now is an ordinary life, one in which he can get up in the morning and go to work or school.
In his more positive moments, Jafar admits that finding the group of friends we share has changed his life – maybe even saved it. At late-night karaoke sessions, he delights us with his sassy commentary and moves that flow like caramel. We gossip about dating. He is teased for his well-manicured eyebrows and admired for his good looks. There are good moments, but the mood can tilt in an instant. With a traumatic past, a precarious present and an uncertain future, it’s hard to avoid the darkness.
Jafar has been stuck in Indonesia for over four years, in that infamous queue of refugees. A gay man who fled his home in fear of losing his life, he now lives in another country where attacks on and arrests of LGBT people are worsening, and criminalising consensual same-sex sexual acts has become top of the political agenda.
Jafar arrived in Indonesia hoping, like many others, to travel to Australia by boat. His was one of the boats that the Australian government so proudly stopped. His is the ‘life saved’ by bureaucracy. But, he says, it’s a life barely worth living.
Jafar has been recognised as a refugee by UNHCR. That process took several years. But then the real waiting began. The wait to be resettled in a country that will recognise his identity and rights stretches endlessly before him. Indonesia hasn’t signed the UN refugee convention, so he can’t stay in the country permanently. He also can’t work or study.
According to the United Nations, less than 1 per cent of refugees worldwide are resettled. UNHCR Indonesia advises refugees that they might never make it to another country. But there is no life for them here either.
Working illegally risks being sent to immigration detention and jeopardising a refugee claim, so in Indonesia refugees and asylum seekers rely on families or friends to send money. When that is not possible, some report to immigration detention centres, hoping they will find a roof over their heads, albeit in prison-like conditions. Or they sleep rough – a group of refugees has made a home of sorts on tattered mats outside the gates of Jakarta’s UNHCR building. Sleeping and living on the edge of the road, they are woken by kicks in the side and clouds of dust from passing motorbikes.
If they are lucky, refugees have just enough money to survive, but they are often helpless when faced with unexpected expenses. Jafar has put a basic medical procedure on hold for years simply because he can’t pay. In this tenuous state of dependence, depression and mental health issues are endemic, and usually remain untreated.
Indonesia is a country obsessed with showing ID. Theoretically, a UN refugee card should be accepted as an official ID, but in practice authorities don’t recognise it. That means everyday activities – finding accommodation, changing money, travelling on trains or buses, leaving the city, or even entering public events – become a battleground.
When refugees do find places to stay, they live like fugitives, constantly fearful of raids. Immigration officials target places where refugees are known to live, knocking on doors and demanding official documentation. When refugees get word that immigration officials are on their way, they hide: doors are locked, lights are turned off.
Jafar’s sister was detained in one of these raids. For nine months, Jafar exhausted every possible option for securing her release. Week after week, as our feet pounded the dirt running track, impatient frustrations seeking relief, Jafar relayed his efforts and I watched as his despair mounted. UNHCR officials couldn’t offer any solutions. Indonesian legal aid services and various religious and nongovernmental organisations tried to assist, but the harsh reality was that there was no route out. Zari, his sister, had been detained without charge.
After months of bullish determination, bitter disappointments and false hopes, Zari was eventually moved. She is now in a shelter that allows her more freedom, although there are still restrictions on her movement.
Refugees may be a hot political topic in Australia, but they are entirely off the agenda in Indonesia. In a vast, sprawling nation of 250 million, the country’s approximately 13,800 refugees and asylum seekers are a drop in the ocean. Until recently, refugees were entirely overlooked in Indonesian law. The country has more than enough problems of its own: there are millions of Indonesians living in poverty, as well as religious tensions, internal conflicts and breaches of basic rights. That leaves little room for concern for refugees.
In a global context, where there are now over 65 million displaced people on the move, 13,800 refugees and asylum seekers is a relatively small number. Yet Indonesia has become a bottleneck, a place where refugees live in limbo without rights. Asylum seekers keep arriving, but there are few ways out. The US has reduced their refugee intake by 47 per cent in the space of a year. Australia has refused to accept any refugees who arrived in Indonesia after July 2014, regardless of the validity of their claim. Jafar knows the numbers don’t add up. There is nowhere to go and no possibility of return, and more and more doors are closing. The present is purgatory.
Jafar is twenty-six years old; he is fit, intelligent and brimming with initiative. The wasted time, the wasted life, the endless, unnecessary suffering, is visibly eating away at him.
It’s painful witnessing the slow creep of hopelessness. So I ask Jafar one day, ‘What would happen if you tried to go home?’ He throws me a weary, jaded smile. My question already feels naive. Prison and torture await. In Iran, gay men are executed.
Jafar tells me, matter-of-factly, that he has a plan to kill himself if he is still here in a year.
In another circumstance, Jafar would be thriving. Here, he does what he can, in spite of the limitations. With a friend, he has recently established the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Information Centre (RAIC). The centre provides information and support to refugees, sharing knowledge about housing, language interpretation and UN processes. They deliver care packages of basic supplies and connect people with healthcare providers and financial donors who are willing to support them, where possible. Donations are random and sporadic, while support from government is non-existent. As refugees, accessing services and contacting authorities is fraught, further complicating their work.
RAIC is one of several self-led initiatives set up by and for refugees. There are nine refugee schools in greater Jakarta, run entirely by volunteers and relying on ad hoc donations. They attempt to fill a yawning gap in essential services, but in reality the support they offer is basic and inadequate. The education the kids receive does not match an ordinary school education, and the healthcare provided equates to bandaid solutions.
Since Indonesia doesn’t recognise refugees, the country is supposed to be a transit zone, but life here is becoming increasingly permanent for many. As refugees remain stranded in Indonesia with no end in sight, they have had to organise and create infrastructure to support themselves. RAIC has been overwhelmed with requests, and like similar initiatives is struggling to meet demand. It is obvious that the need is desperate – and that these self-led efforts, valiantly organised in trying circumstances, are woefully inadequate.
Manus and Nauru detention centres may have solid walls, but for many Indonesia is also a prison – one with borders that cannot be crossed, where movements are bound and where freedom is out of reach.
Jafar agrees with the Australian government on one point – the danger of boat crossings. He has known too many people who have died at sea to think otherwise. But, if the boats are stopped, there must be another solution, he pleads, like increasing the refugee intake.
We run laps, in circles, exhausting ourselves, like mice on a wheel.
For more information about the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Information Centre, please visit raicindonesia.org
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