Refugees battle racism in Indonesia
When asked how he has been treated in Indonesia, Najib*, a refugee who currently lives in Tanjung Pinang, answered, ‘The sentence I’ve heard most often from the Indonesian authorities is “we never invited you to come here. If you’re not happy with the way you are treated, go back to your country”’.
I have heard many similar stories of discrimination from refugees and asylum seekers living in Indonesia. Zia* has been in the country since 2014, one of more than 6000 Afghans who have temporary found refuge there. ‘I remember last year during Ramadan, Sunni Muslim refugees who were fasting and going to masjid were allowed to stay outside at night for a few hours, but we, Shia Muslim refugees, were forced to stay inside our rooms’, he told me.
Racism towards refugees in Indonesia is a thorny social issue. As part of the Nuraga Project, focused on collecting the stories of refugees living in Indonesia, I met and interviewed refugees and engaged in online conversation with others via Facebook. I wanted to hear from them about the forms of racism that they have experienced during their protracted situations in Indonesia.
As of December 2020, Indonesia was hosting 13,743 UNHCR-registered migrants mostly from Afghanistan, but also from Somalia, Myanmar and other countries. This included 10,121 refugees and 3622 asylum seekers, of whom 73 per cent are men, and 27 per cent women. Among the refugee population, 28 per cent are children.
While refugees hold UNHCR identity cards, this does not mean that the Indonesian authorities fully respect their rights. The majority of refugees still experience discrimination, prejudice and marginalisation. Amnesty International’s 2016 Refugees Welcome Index ranks Indonesia 26th out of the 27 countries surveyed, with a score of 32 (on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the highest score). These results indicate the country’s unwillingness to absorb refugees.
Indonesia is widely known as a country of great ethnic diversity and its national motto, ‘Unity in Diversity’, promotes tolerance among the its many diverse groups. Despite such apparent tolerance of difference, misconceptions about refugees are widespread.
Both the government and local communities where they live, frequently associate refugees and asylum seekers with problems of security. They are often labelled as potential disease carriers, troublemakers and criminals. The fact that many refugees used to be housed in immigration detention centres, which were originally intended for the detention of suspected immigration law violators, only serves to confirm the negative perceptions local communities have about them.
Over a decade ago, in September 2010, such concerns led the Director General of Immigration to introduce Regulation No. IMI-1489.UM.08.05 concerning the Handling of Illegal Immigrants, on the grounds that the existence of refugees and asylum seekers has had an impact on national security. Before the detention regime was abolished in 2018, the government preferred asylum seekers and refugees to be confined in immigration detention centres so they could be more easily controlled and monitored.
Prior to the enactment of Presidential Regulation No.125/2016 on Handling Foreign Refugees, immigration officers favoured use of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ over ‘asylum seeker’, in all authoritative instruments governing the presence of refugees and asylum seekers. The media has also perpetuated this hostile view. Consequently, such misinformation and misnaming of refugees has stigmatised refugees and adversely affected their assimilation into local communities.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means that although refugees are under the protection of the UNHCR they still live in fear and their mobility is restricted. Esmatullah*, who lives in Pekanbaru explained his situation, ‘Here refugees are not allowed to go out of the city. A curfew is imposed. We must be inside our accommodation by 9 pm. If anyone breaks it, they can be detained for weeks in the detention centre’.
About half of the refugees in Indonesia live under the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and are accommodated in one of the 85 IOM-run community-housing facilities across Indonesia. The others have to fend for themselves. Many choose to live in Jakarta and its surrounding areas. There are around 6000 refugees and asylum seekers living ‘independently’ or without any support; their exact number is difficult to ascertain because they often move from place to place. They are compelled to live independently due to the Australian government reduction since 2018 in its annual appropriation to support the IOM’s Regional Cooperation Arrangement activities with Indonesia. Recently arrived asylum seekers have no chance of gaining any support from the IOM.
For many Indonesians, the refugees are seen as rich foreigners and accordingly are overcharged for public services such as housing and medical treatment.
Their Indonesian neighbours often take advantage of the presence of these ‘independent refugees’. Majid, who lives with his mother in Cisarua Puncak explained, ‘Local people here are mostly good, but they think that we’ve come here for enjoyment and that’s why they charge us more rent than they charge other people’.
Ahmed* who is from Palestine and currently lives in Bogor, reported additional negative experiences, ‘One time I was sick. I had problems with my stomach. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t move. I was just sitting. Whatever I ate, I threw up. After one week of not being able to eat, I went to a hospital. They did some tests. They checked my kidney, not my stomach. They asked about my life, asked if I had HIV. Then they charged me Rp. 2.8 million for the ultrasound exam and the blood test’.
In fact, limited access to work and education means that many refugees do not have regular daily routines and tend to minimise their interaction with locals. Hamid*, a refugee living in Cisarua, described his normal day:
‘Our only interaction with the locals is with shopkeepers. If the Government of Indonesia gave refugees the chance to practise their skills, work, and live normally, interaction would happen on its own. You cannot expect interactions between two groups of people who live completely separately. You sit in front of your house seeing people passing by on their motorcycles off to work or somewhere else, and you yourself have nothing to do. That moment everything dies: your motivation, hope, and any sense of interaction’.
Refugees experience racial discrimination in the accommodation that they share with other refugee families. Amina* from Sudan commented:
‘I found myself living in accommodation where all nationalities were different. For me I don’t have a problem with differences because I’m confident; I know how to deal with others; I can make friendships. I’m good at that. But my daughter, she’s three and a half years old. When she wanted to play with other kids, they asked her, ‘Why are you black?’, ‘Why is your hair short?’, or ‘Why don’t you look like us?’. She came to me and cried. If the children became angry with my daughter, they always called her blackface.’
To ease the distress caused by the way they have been treated in Indonesia, most refugees continue to hold out hope for the opportunity to be resettled in third world countries such as America, Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Until then, Zia tells me, ‘The only possible way not to get harmed or further discriminated against is to put our heads down, and talk about discrimination that we experience with our friends to heal’.
What works to reduce racism?
Refugee populations now live among the Indonesian people in urban areas, concentrated primarily in the cities of Medan, Tanjung Pinang, Batam, Pekanbaru, Jakarta, Surabaya, Semarang, Makassar and Kupang. As mentioned, the current situation is the result of policy changes since in 2018, after which the system of immigration detention for refugees and asylum seekers was abolished and school-age refugee children were granted access to formal education.
While resettlement in a third country is the preferred solution among refugees in Indonesia, opportunities for resettlement are seriously limited due to high demand globally. The implication of this reality is that refugees can languish in Indonesia for a protracted period of time. Current global estimates put this wait time at as much as 26 years.
The Indonesian government should be doing more to improve community understanding and perceptions of the issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers. It is vital that fact-based public discourse shapes perceptions of refugees. Some of this urgently needed work is already being carried out by on non-governmental organisations such as Church World Service, Jesuit Refugee Service, Suaka, Sandya Institute and Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, which support refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia. But the government must also contribute.
Public perception plays a crucial role in Indonesian societies’ willingness to absorb differences and foster social cohesion while valuing social diversity. Given that the duration of a refugee’s stay in Indonesia is unknown, this work is vital in order to ensure social harmony among these communities.
Ilham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Indonesian immigration officer in the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. From 2014 to 2017, he worked with refugees and asylum seekers who were in the care of his agency. The article is based on interviews conducted for the Nuraga Project.
*Not his real name. Names of refugees who have shared their stories have also been changed for their protection.