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The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Indonesia is working alongside its partner organisations to ensure the wellbeing of African refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, write Savitri Taylor and Brynna Rafferty-Brown. But do the displaced receive the support they need and do they have reason to be optimistic about their future stability?

There were 1773 asylum seekers and 798 recognised refugees registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Indonesia at the end of 2009. 107 of these individuals (50 asylum seekers and 57 refugees) were from Africa. They were mostly male and came from Algeria (1), Burundi (1), Cameroon (2), Cote d’Ivoire (4), Democratic Republic of the Congo (11), Egypt (2), Guinea (15), Liberia (1), Sierra Leone (3), Somalia (65), Tunisia (1) and Western Sahara (1).

As part of a research project examining the impact on asylum seekers of Australia’s border control cooperation with Indonesia, our field researchers in Indonesia interviewed 59 asylum seekers and refugees in 2009. They also interviewed 50 Indonesian government officials and others who interacted with asylum seekers in Indonesia in a variety of ways from enforcing border control to providing support. This article sets out what we learned about the experiences of our seven African interviewees (all Somali and Muslim).

We interviewed six Somali men and one Somali woman. The youngest, Issa, was 19 and the oldest, Mustafa, was 60. The others were aged in their 20s or early 30s. At the time of the interviews, they had been in Indonesia for between one and five years. Five had entered Indonesia via an international flight into Jakarta. The other two had arrived by boat. At least half had had contact with people smugglers. Issa, whose extended family paid for him to be smuggled out of Somalia after the death of his parents, was abandoned in Jakarta by the smuggler in August 2007. He lived in the streets and slept in mosques for a month and a half before running into an Indonesian army officer who told him that UNHCR might be able to assist him.

Indonesia is not a party to the UNHCR 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, Indonesia cooperates with UNHCR by allowing it to maintain a presence and, pursuant to its own mandate, to conduct refugee status determinations in respect of asylum seekers in Indonesia. In addition, the Indonesian Immigration Directorate General issued a Directive in 2002 which states, among other things, that ‘the status and presence of aliens holding Attestation Letters or identification cards issued by UNHCR as asylum seekers, refugees or persons of concern to UNHCR, must be respected’. All our Somali interviewees had been recognised as refugees by UNHCR Indonesia, in most cases approximately one year after making a claim. Thankfully, as with the majority of our interviewees, no Somalis reported having experienced any problems with Indonesian police or other officials after receiving UNHCR documentation.

Asylum seekers (and for that matter recognised refugees) in Indonesia are not accorded the right to work. If authorised by UNHCR, its Indonesian implementing partner, Church World Service Indonesia (CWS) can presently pay a monthly living allowance to asylum seekers identified as having specific needs, such as children. Other asylum seekers are left to look after themselves for the most part, though UNHCR’s implementing partner can provide assistance in life threatening or similar emergency situations. Pursuant to an arrangement between the Australian government, the Indonesian government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), asylum seekers intercepted by Indonesian authorities en route to Australia or New Zealand are referred to IOM for material assistance. However, other asylum seekers in Indonesia usually do not qualify for assistance from IOM. Asylum seekers who do not receive assistance from UNHCR or IOM can find themselves in quite straitened circumstances unless they have brought a lot of money with them, receive money from family overseas or manage to work illegally. Mustafa, who waited three years for UNHCR recognition, was forced to live in the streets and sleep in mosques during that time.

Once recognised, refugees assessed as being ‘needy’ are provided with a ‘monthly subsistence allowance’ (MSA) by UNHCR through CWS. The monthly allowance is just over Rp1,000,000 for a single person. In the case of families, the allowance is Rp1,000,000 for the head of the household and approximately half that sum for each additional family member. The MSA is supposed to cover all basic living expenses including accommodation costs. An extra amount is included in the allowance to cover the special needs of children under five, the elderly and pregnant or lactating women.

All our Somali interviewees were under the care of CWS at the time of interview. They all lived in Jakarta, even though CWS also has a centre in Bogor and allows refugees to choose where they live. The majority of refugees who choose to live in Jakarta are, in fact, African. Refugees of other nationalities usually choose other locations, not least because Jakarta is one of Indonesia’s most expensive cities.

Given that basic accommodation in Jakarta can cost anything from Rp500,000 per month upwards and food and other necessities cost more than elsewhere, it is unsurprising that only two of our Somali interviewees (the youngest and the oldest) thought that the MSA was adequate. The situation of Mahmud, the only married person among our Somali interviewees, was particularly difficult. He was supporting his Indonesian wife and their four-year-old child (also an Indonesian citizen under its law) on a single MSA because neither his wife nor his child qualified for an MSA themselves. Mahmud was also unhappy about the fact that he couldn’t enrol his daughter in kindergarten because he couldn’t obtain a birth certificate for her. We were not told whether the obstacles to obtaining a birth certificate were bureaucratic or financial. We suspect a bit of both.

Mahmud, Munir, Abdo and Munawar lived in the same cheap boarding house (kost) in Jakarta. It had an outside bathroom and no kitchen. Mustafa and Issa also lived in basic kost accommodation. However, Aisha rented a house with her parents, older sibling and that sibling’s children.

Abdo told us he ate two meals a day, eating only noodles or bread when he was running low on money. He said: ‘Normally I’ve got nothing left by the 20th of the month. Once I get to that stage I look for additional money from friends. But if I borrow money then I’m always in debt, which isn’t nice either.’ Mahmud and Munir also found it difficult to make their MSA last the month and sometimes had to go into debt with stall owners or borrow money from friends. Munawar was slightly better off than the others because he occasionally worked as a translator for CWS earning Rp50,000 per hour worked. However, he still found his income insufficient for his day-to-day needs.

When asked about access to health care, our interviewees told us that CWS paid for treatment at a local health clinic or hospital as required. Mustafa was actually the only Somali interviewee who seemed to suffer from on-going physical ill health. This took the form of headaches, vomiting and an upset stomach, which he managed by eating bland, soft food. He also needed medication for a foot wound he had acquired in a jungle in Somalia. Abdo told us that he went to the hospital almost every month, but described his condition as stress-related. He explained, ‘If there aren’t any activities at the CWS centre, then I don’t have anything to do, I just sleep. That’s what makes me stressed.’ At other points in the interview he said, ‘I feel depressed because I can’t do anything here. I can’t work even though I’m still young’ and ‘Here I feel like a dead person because I can’t do anything.’

Regrettably, many of the weekly programs and services offered by CWS Jakarta have been withdrawn due to low participation rates. Most refugees have to travel for at least an hour, either through the maze of Jakarta’s public transport or on the slightly more expensive motorbike taxis, before reaching the CWS centre in central Jakarta. Understandably, most choose not to spend their MSA on more trips in to CWS than is absolutely necessary (i.e. once a month to collect their MSA).

Many Somali refugees live in the same area of Jakarta and have friendships with one another. However, none of our Somali interviewees spoke of friendships with refugees of other backgrounds. Most did not have friendships with locals either, though they felt generally positive towards Indonesians. Of our Somali interviewees, Issa seemed to have created the strongest links with locals. He trained regularly with the local soccer team and often met up with friends at the mosque for prayers and Qur’an study sessions. At the other end of the spectrum, Abdo thought that he received suspicious looks on public transport because he was black and believed that the best way to stay out of trouble was not to get involved with locals. Abdo’s sense of being regarded suspiciously may well have had foundation. According to employees of CWS and of UNHCR’s previous implementing partner, Pulih, their physical similarity with Nigerians has in the past led to Somali refugees having occasional problems with the police because Nigerians in Jakarta have the unfortunate reputation of being involved in the illegal drug trade. However, both organisations worked hard to educate the police and seem to have succeeded.

Although our Somali interviewees felt safe in Indonesia, they shared a common desire to be resettled anywhere where they could start a new life. On the other hand, their optimism about achieving that outcome varied considerably. At one extreme, Issa, who had been in Indonesia for two years, was confident that things would work themselves out. At the other, 30-year-old Mahmud and 22-year-old Munir, who had been in Indonesia for five and four years respectively, spoke of having lost their futures. Lamentably, their pessimism seems entirely justified.


* Savitri Taylor is senior lecturer of law at the School of Law, La Trobe University.
* Brynna Rafferty-Brown was research officer, School of Law, La Trobe University at the relevant time.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.