Refugees in Indonesia, the majority of whom are from the Hazara minority in Afghanistan, have been protesting never-ending wait times for resettlement, with one man setting himself on fire last week.
Several Afghan refugees have sewn their lips shut and a 22-year-old attempted self immolation across Indonesia over the past few weeks in desperate acts to highlight the plight of more than 14,000 people stuck in the foreign land for years.
More than half of the refugees in Indonesia, who are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are from Afghanistan. They have been demanding an early settlement to their pleas for asylum and resettlement, local press reported.
In recent weeks, dozens of Afghans have been protesting outside the headquarters of the UN refugee and migration agencies in several cities across Indonesia. Last week, the 22-year-old, who arrived in Indonesia as a teenager, set himself on fire in Medan, in the country’s largest island of Sumatra. He is now being treated for third-degree burns, the reports said.
Earlier this week, Afghan refugees in Pekambaru, another city in Sumatra, stitched their lips in protest at a makeshift camp they had set up in front of the UNHCR headquarters demanding of the UN agency to speed up their resettlement process. Many of them say they have been stranded in the south-east Asian country for ten years.
Who are the protesting refugees?
Most of the Afghan refugees are from the Hazara ethnic minority, long persecuted by the Taliban, and have been in Indonesia for many years, awaiting resettlement to countries like Canada and Australia. Single men are particularly affected by the long wait, but women and children are also known to wait for years before they can start building new lives.
In recent years, at least 14 Afghan refugees have committed suicide in the country, while six others attempted suicide.
Why are they waiting to leave Indonesia?
Many of the refugees have made their way to Indonesia in the hope they could reach Australia by boat. Australia, however, has been sending back the often-unseaworthy vessels to Indonesia since 2013.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, which means asylum-seekers are not officially recognised by the government. They are not allowed to work, and do not have access to public schools or hospitals. While some of them are held in immigration detention centres, others may get places in housing funded by the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) or live in makeshift shelters.
Why do they have to wait so long?
Afghans and others – including refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan – have to wait a long time for resettlement because there are very few resettlement places around the world. During the pandemic, travel restrictions and border closures brought the already-low number to a twenty-year low.
In response to the protests and self-immolation incident, the UNHCR said it “acknowledged the frustrations expressed by the refugees”, but that “resettlement can only be offered to a very limited number of vulnerable refugees, given the low number of places available worldwide.” The agency added that 3,700 refugees in Indonesia had been referred for resettlement to other countries in the last five years, and that 2,700 had left the country. Nearly half of them are from Afghanistan.
Less than 23,000 refugees were resettled worldwide in 2020, while 1.44 million worldwide are in “urgent need” of resettlement globally, according to the agency. There are currently 26 million registered refugees around the world, most of them in neighbouring countries.
Who else is responsible then?
Another reason for the bottleneck in Indonesia is Australia’s restrictive immigration policy. Australia has banned people arriving by boat as well as refugees registered in Indonesia after 2014 from applying to be resettled in Australia. It has also invested millions in border control, and sent thousands to offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea while their asylum claims are processed.
As Australia shut its borders in the last ten years, the refugee population rose sharply in Indonesia.