Imagine fleeing your own oppressive country, taking your family on a perilous journey through several countries and across oceans in unseaworthy boats, dreaming of a future in Australia. Imagine making it to Ashmore Reef in Australian waters, only to be ‘rescued’ by an Australian naval ship and returned to Indonesia. Imagine languishing there for years as a non-citizen without rights, unable to work, to own a home, to speak the language, or to pay for your children to go to school. This is the life of the people in between, the failed asylum seekers who were turned back by Australia.
I have been conducting research with one group of failed asylum seekers living in Lombok, since October 2003. They had been there since 2001, and were still there when I visited them again in October 2005. The 146 people in this group originated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Vietnam. They are also just one of a number of groups stranded in different parts of Indonesia.
Sent back to Indonesia
Until early 2002, Indonesia was a central flow-through point for asylum seekers travelling from the Middle East to Australia. People smugglers made a big business out of transporting people to Indonesia, and organising a temporary stay and the final journey to Australia. That business largely ended after the two countries entered into the Australia-Indonesia Initiative, a regional co-operation arrangement that also involved the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) - a quasi-multilateral organisation funded by countries including Japan, Norway, Sweden, Australia and the US. Unlike Australia, Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 convention on refugees, and has no domestic legislation to deal with international asylum seekers. As a result, asylum seekers found themselves living in Indonesia, with no legal status, while their asylum claims were dealt with by the UNHCR. Their ‘stay’ is funded and supervised through the IOM.
From the beginning, life has been difficult for the asylum seekers. Since being turned back from Australia, all have been rejected twice by the UNHCR in their applications for refugee status. But only a few have opted to return home to their countries of origin. Most have done their best to make a life for themselves in Lombok. But life has been hard. Many day to day problems occur simply as a result of their lack of legal status and the reality of life having left family and possessions behind. Few arrived in Lombok with money, and because they are officially unable to work, few have the resources to move around Mataram or elsewhere in Indonesia. And the funding provided through IOM is anything but adequate. IOM won’t, for example, pay for children to attend local schools. Only those who have money, or who have family elsewhere who can send money, are able to afford school for their kids.
There are also social tensions. Some of the poorer local Sasak people resent the asylum seekers, who to their mind, ‘have it made’ - living in hotels and receiving free food and medical care. Tensions have been exacerbated by language difficulties, although over time these have reduced. A protest by Afghani asylum seekers against IOM ‘supervision’ also caused problems, particularly as some made threats against an Indonesian IOM official. Inevitably other problems arise, including those associated with sexual ‘misdemeanors’. While a few asylum seekers have married local women, the local press is quick to seize on any hints of impropriety, making big news of any issue. Religious differences with the local community have also caused conflict. The vast majority of Indonesian Muslims are Sunni, and most Iraqi refugees are Shi’a. A visiting cleric from Java reportedly encouraged his congregation to ‘get rid of’ the Shi’a followers.
Not surprisingly also, inter-ethnic tensions have arisen between the different groups of asylum seekers. At one time the Iraqis and the Iranian Mandaeans lived in the same hotel. But conflict arose because the Iraqis consider the Iranian Mandaeans infidel. The Iranians were relocated to another hotel.
When I visited the asylum seekers in 2003 I was struck by the limited contact they had with the local residents of Lombok. While this had improved by the time I returned in 2005, it was still less than they would have hoped. Some young men had befriended some local men. They borrowed motor cycles and socialised a little. One local woman, the owner of one of the hotels, provided asylum seekers with support over and above that paid for by IOM, such as clean facilities, a freezer for their food, and a sewing machine. And one Arab/Sasak family had been particularly friendly, inviting some of the young men home to cook Middle-Eastern food, and involving them in local sport.
But overall the level of engagement has been disappointing, perhaps even worsening over time. In 2003 some of the young Iraqi and Afghani men formed a football team assisted by a friendly Sasak in Ampenan, the old port city. The team did well in the local Lombok competition, but was stopped from entering the inter-island competition because of their non-Indonesian status. By the time I returned their involvement in football had, not surprisingly, fizzled out.
Even the children have missed out. A small number of the stranded asylum seekers were orphans who went to local schools. They made friends in the playground, but none of them had ever been invited to one of these friends’ homes. Thankfully, after several years, these children have been granted protection in Canada.
No help, no hope, no future
The failed asylum seekers have languished in their hotels on Lombok since 2001. They have no status, and so are in limbo. Not surprisingly, they have no sense of ‘future’ either. And despite some progress socially, interaction with local people is minimal and generally limited to a few benevolent individuals, the local police and the IOM and UNHCR. They are doing the best they can in their circumstances, and in some ways are amazingly pro-active. At the time I first met them they had established an internet website (www.naurwire.org) which gave news updates and contributions from the groups on Nauru, Manus Island and those in Lombok. Called the Lombok Listener, their online bulletin aims to sustain a voice for their situation in the outside world. Through their online activities, they try to have their voice heard by the outside world. However, these ‘voices’ have largely gone unheard. There has been no humanitarian or political intervention on behalf of these failed asylum seekers. They can’t go back, they can’t go forward. They truly are ‘people in between’.
Cynthia Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a researcher at the University of New South Wales. For more background see ‘Don’t let them drown’ by Anita Roberts in Inside Indonesia No. 66, April-June 2001.