The Refugee of The World
As the year passes by, the death toll of refugees in Indonesia rises as they succumb to feelings of isolation and stagnation due to their indefinite limbo living in Indonesia. Furthermore, there’s lack of attention from both the international community and the local government, as multiple refugees are giving up on their lives and have attempted suicides, and some sadly, have succeeded, whereas others are dying and suffering from various mental diseases, intense depression, frustration and hopelessness about their uncertain future.
Since 2013, through my limited research and my limitation in mobility to travel outside of the city, I have discovered fourteen (17) refugees’ deaths: four committed suicide whereas others have died from preventable diseases and because of the conditions in Indonesia, which I mentioned above.
Note: There’s actually a lot more unaccountable refugee deaths in Indonesia that has never been reported officially.
All of this has happened under the gaze of UNHCR, IOM, and NGOs that claim to protect refugee rights. In fact, this is all no more than fairytales. For many times, I have noticed that these agencies are stating that they are “working with the government.” This statement is true: the NGOs are really working to maintain their generous salaries. They are not trying to use their influence by standing by our side and helping us find a durable solution for our lives.
As Indonesia is not a signatory country to the UN refugee Convention, it is not committed to uphold refugee human rights. In the absence of effective domestic legal protection mechanisms for refugees and according Indonesian domestic law (No. 6 of 2011 on Immigration), asylum seekers and refugees are considered to be illegal. This also means that there is no law to protect refugees from possible harm such as indefinite detention, misconduct of official staffs, and corruption. Additionally, before they seek asylum, refugees are detained for an uncertain period and only later are their claims for refugee status are processed. Even if they asylum seekers are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, there is no certainty about their release. If they are lucky enough to leave the detention centres, they are then moved into IOM community housing, where they live in limited freedom. This process could take up to three years. However, they are still in danger of getting back to detention if they cross the line on the many restrictions imposed on them.
Unlike other non-signatory countries such as Malaysia, where refugees are allowed to take up casual work and have access to some basic rights, such as education, movement and making a living, Indonesia does not give refugees any work rights. They also have no travel rights; no right to formal education; they are forbidden to marry outside their own community and from entering into a relationship with a local; curfew is imposed from 6pm to 10 am; they are punished if they are delayed or fail to return to designated accommodation; they must compulsorily report all their movements to security; and are forbidden to drive any vehicle. Effectively, all the fundamental human rights of refugees are denied.
In December 2016, President Jokowi signed a new decree concerning the handling of refugees. This vague decree does not offer any legal certainty or a durable solution for the refugees. Instead, the decree has tightened the already draconian political restrictions and added new ones, compounding the painful experience of refugees living in both community housing and detention centers throughout Indonesia.
Note: Until around this time, Indonesia never had a proper definition of what foreign refugee is.
In 2013, Australia implemented Operation Sovereign Border. The specific aspects of it were the offshore detention regime, which saw Prime Minister Rudd announce that refugees who had arrived by boat after July 2013 will never be resettled in Australia. This development had the effect of worsening the refugees’ situation as Indonesia adopted some of Australia’s harsher measures.
It is believed the intent of Australia’s cruel treatment of refugees is to deter possible future arrivals. But Australia also bears responsibility towards the refugees presently in Indonesia because its boat turn back policy brought the refugees illegally to Indonesia, where they are categorized as illegal immigrants. The boat turnback policy also violates Indonesia’s sovereignty. Australia’s border protection policies deny the refugees’ human rights and contravene international law. Furthermore, Australia has failed to uphold its commitment to the 1951 UN Declaration on Refugees, which explicitly forbids ‘refoulement’ and punitive policies.
Australia, in its determination to garner support from hardliners obsessed with ‘protecting the border,’ has resolved to keep refugees marooned in Indonesia as a deterrent for others. It seems Australia hopes that the sight of refugees driven to despair by continuous delays and with no end in view to their hopeless situation, will discourage others from coming to Australia via Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Australian government is telling its citizens that only the toughest policies will keep the borders safe. A further example of their most brutal policies is the case of the boat people held illegally on Manus Island and Nauru for more than six years.
In short, refugees Indonesia are also indirectly detained by Australia with its strategic policies of bilateral agreement made by both countries mediated by IOM from 2013, and varied over the years as other Prime Ministers saw fit; in fact, Indonesia-held refugees share a fate totally comparable to those held on Manus Island and Nauru.
But Australia is not alone in bearing responsibility for the appalling treatment of refugees. Both the UNHCR and IOM are complicit in Australia’s brutal policies. The UNHCR has blocked the refugees’ access to its refugee resettlement process, which it manages on behalf of the international community. And IOM has selectively granted or withheld access to accommodation and financial support to refugees, for which the international community pays. The behaviour of these NGOs, which are supposed to be protect refugees’ human rights and safety, shows they are active players in Australia and Indonesia’s punishing policies. This is why refugees have lost both trust in the NGOs, and hope for a better future.
In September 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) joined the ‘UN Family’, rebranding itself the ‘UN Organization for Migration’. However, IOM does not have a rights-based protection mandate. This NGO has been the active supplier of Australia’s deterrence agenda in Indonesia, which violates both refugee rights and its obligation to UN. This is an indefensible conflict in IOM’ credibility, in its attempt at selling itself as the ‘UN Migration Agency’ while simultaneously detaining, deterring and returning refugees and asylum seekers.
Refugees have been pushed to their last limits and the powers tasked to uphold human rights are keeping them marginalized, detained, tortured, victimized and trafficked out to sea. Refugees are no longer willing to tolerate this betrayal. When both IOM and the UNHCR endorse policies that brutalise refugees, how can the refugees trust them, or hope for a safe future? For them, the UNHCR and IOM were the last hope.
These facts demonstrate that Australia, with the help of the UNHCR and IOM, has failed to honour its human rights obligations and has perpetrated a crime against humanity. This crime cannot be regarded as excusable and exceptional, justified under Australia’s border protection policy. Australia must be held to account, more so because its policies targeted innocent people who were already victims of war, genocide and persecution.
Since 2013, refugees across Indonesia have conducted many protests against the cruel treatment from immigration officers, and to seek a durable solution for their future. Since 2018, the continued protest of refugees in Makassar (Indonesia) has started with the hashtag (#Monday4refugees) and #Helprefugeesindonesia); there have been 25 rounds of protests. But the refugees’ voices still remain unheard by the international community.
Note: There are many more localised protests in Jakarta, Balikpapan, Surabaya, Medan, and more.
Firstly, although the UNHCR and IOM claim to be the pillars of human rights protection in the world, they have chosen to actively support Australia’s deterrence policy against refugees, which contravenes the 1951 UNHCR Declaration on Refugees. Therefore, both NGOs must be held responsible for their silence over Australia’s deterrence policy, and for their active involvement in this crime.
Secondly, Australia’s refugee policy and its influence in border policing, have affected the refugees’ chances for resettlement as other countries are adopting the most punishing aspects of Australia’s policies. Refugees can accept that Australia has no desire to help those detained in Indonesia. However, it should not be assumed that they want to resettle in Australia at any cost or exclusively. They will pursue any option that leads to safety and a normal life. Australia’s damaging role in the refugee prospects means it must compensate the refugees for the suffering its discriminatory policies have caused for six to eight years. Australian refugee policies fail the principles of international law and constitute a crime against humanity.
Thirdly, Indonesia, having shown kindness by hosting large numbers of refugees, nevertheless has failed to respect the rights and dignity of refugees. The agreements Indonesia concluded with the UNHCR implied they would respect the refugees. Additionally, the Indonesian government has not taken any action to mitigate the worse effects of Australia’s discriminatory policies. Rather, both governments have colluded on refugee policy, by ensuring that no Indonesia-based refugees was resettled in Australia. This is unacceptable and both governments must negotiate to achieve resettlement for all refugees, without discrimination.
The refugees believe in, and respect international expertise and goodwill in human rights and refugee resettlement. As a member of a vulnerable refugee population, the Rohingya seek the intervention of the international community to bring them to a solution and a safe future. Refugee tragedies have been part of the story of humanity throughout the ages. In contemporary times, the end of apartheid in South Africa, or the independence for Timor Leste, the independence of countries in former Yugoslavia, were all achieved through determined and vigorous action from the international community. This crisis, too, can be resolved by decisive action. Failing this, refugees in Indonesia will continue to be trapped within harsh systems and condemned to slow death by attrition.