Novi first met her husband, Khalid (not their real names), at a local café. She had gone there after work to grab something to eat and came across an Indonesian friend who introduced them. Novi and Khalid became friends and started seeing each other socially.
He was in Indonesia trying to find a safe country to live in. As a member of a stateless Muslim-minority group in Bangladesh, he reported persistent harassment and persecution. However, his application for protection in Indonesia was rejected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and his case had been closed. Despite this, Khalid refused to return to Bangladesh without the protections of citizenship. As a result, he had become stuck in Indonesia without formal status and with limited hopes for a better future.
Over time, Khalid’s relationship with Novi became serious. After four years together, the couple decided they wanted to marry. However, Indonesian authorities would not conduct a nikah resmi (formal marriage) for them. Foreigners who wish to register a marriage with state authorities must have a valid passport, entry visa, copy of their birth certificate, and a letter from their consulate stating there is no impediment to marriage. As Khalid was unable to provide or obtain such documents, their marriage was denied.
Novi and Khalid are not the only couple in this situation. Indonesia hosts a growing number of asylum seekers and recognised refugees, as well as those whose claims for protection have been denied and are expected to depart the country. According to the UNHCR, there were 13,110 asylum seekers and refugees in the country in August 2015, with an unknown additional number of stateless persons and others like Khalid with closed cases. These migrants come from a variety of countries including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Palestine, Pakistan and Iraq. Many live in Indonesia for years without official legal status and with significant limitations on their right to participate in the formal institutions of Indonesian society. Without the right to work, most survive on the modest support provided by the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and local non-governmental organisations.
The majority of this migrant population are single men. Many become part of their local community as their time in the country extends indefinitely. As a natural part of this social engagement, some men develop romantic relationships with Indonesian women. Those who want to get married and establish a family face substantial, and sometimes insurmountable, barriers to state-sanctioned marriage.
Like Khalid, many asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons are unable to fulfil the bureaucratic requirements for marriage. Their country of origin may not be able to issue the documentation required; they may be afraid to approach authorities from their country of origin to request such documentation; or they may not have been able to travel with a valid passport or enter Indonesia on a valid visa. Some may, in fact, be married elsewhere. Whatever the reasons, formal marriage in Indonesia is not possible for many of these couples.
However, another option exists for couples who are Muslim. Nikah sirih is an informal marriage conducted by local religious authorities. Such informal marriage is not uncommon in Indonesia, not least because it is more affordable than a formal marriage, although it is less socially desirable. Women in such informal marriages cannot apply for financial support should they get divorced, nor inherit from their husband’s estate should he pass away. In some circumstances, nikah sirih is used to legitimise polygamous marriages, prostitution and sex tourism. Further, until 2012, fathers had no legal obligations towards their children from such marriages and could not be named as a parent on the birth certificate. As a result, nikah sirih has been criticised and debated in public, with concerns from women’s rights groups and from some sectors of the Muslim community about its ongoing practice.
Transnational couples married under nikah sirih are forced to live in a relationship that is socially stigmatised, renders their children illegitimate, and increases the barriers to family reunion should the husband be resettled or deported. Further exacerbating these strains on family life, Indonesian wives are not eligible for financial support from migrant and refugee support agencies.
Despite the stigma and limitations, Novi decided that she would rather marry Khalid in an informal Muslim wedding ceremony than not at all. She took Khalid home to meet her family during festival of Eid al-Fitr at the end of the fasting month. Her parents were concerned about the prospect of an informal marriage, but eventually gave their permission for the ceremony to go ahead.
The couple have now been married for three years. They don’t plan to have children yet, due to their circumstances. Khalid is not allowed to work in Indonesia and Novi hasn’t found work since getting married. IOM provides Khalid with a single room (with a bed, kitchen and toilet in the one room) and an allowance of Rp.27,500 (A$4) per day. This is the allowance for a single person, as they do not provide one for Novi. The couple find this frustrating, as the IOM has provided an allowance for Indonesian wives in another region. As a result of their financial situation, they struggle to find enough money to eat and cover other basic expenses.
Khalid is finding life very stressful and gets angry and upset quite easily. When asked how she responds to her husband being sad and stressed, Novi says ‘Well, what I can do is just tell him to be patient as everyone will be called [up for a resettlement place one day]’. Khalid responds, saying ‘I have been patient, but patience has its limits’.
What future for Novi and Khalid?
Despite the fact that his case has been closed for several years, Khalid holds out hope that he will find a country to resettle him. He is determined not to return to Bangladesh unless he is recognised as a citizen. The couple have decided that if he is resettled in a third country, Novi will wait for him in Indonesia while he establishes himself. He will then sponsor her to join him. Her parents told her, ‘If you are meant for each other, [if] you are destined to be his wife and he is a good man, he will certainly come back to marry you [formally]’. Her friends are worried for her future, asking ‘Aren’t you afraid of being left [behind]?’ But Novi says ‘Well, if that’s my destiny, what can I say? (laughing)’. She is sure she will join him.
Robyn Sampson (email@example.com) is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Swinburne Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Her research focuses on forced migration and border control. This article is based on interviews conducted in 2009.