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In a country where they have no rights to work or become citizens, refugees face a grim choice: Return to repression in Myanmar, or live under the care of UN agencies they allege are doing the West’s dirty work

Medical workers help a Rohingya girl on Dec. 31, 2021, at the port of Krueng Geukueh in Indonesia's North Aceh region. About 120 Rohingya asylum seekers arrived on a boat that has drifted for days before being towed by an Indonesian navy ship.Rahmat Mirza/The Associated Press

On the last day of 2021, in the dark and pouring rain, more than 100 Rohingya asylum seekers disembarked a rickety wooden boat at a port in Aceh, in northern Indonesia. Stepping onto land after almost a month at sea, they were handed face masks by PPE-clad workers and sent for a two-week quarantine.

That detention has come to an end, but their ordeal is hardly over. The Rohingya now join thousands of other asylum seekers and refugees from a variety of countries in a limbo some have endured for more than a decade. Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key international law governing asylum, and does not provide refugees the right to work or become citizens. Instead, they must scrape by on what support is available from a variety of international and local bodies, while hoping to get settled in a third country, or risk returning to the home they fled. Many observers blame their plight not on Indonesia, however, but Australia, which has partnered with Jakarta to prevent refugees reaching its border.

“We have been in Indonesia for 11 years,” said Karim Ullah, a Rohingya refugee living in Pekanbaru, a city in Sumatra. “Is there any chance we will ever get resettled?”

Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group from northwestern Myanmar. For decades they have faced attacks and repression by the Burmese authorities, which Canada in 2018 recognized as constituting a genocide. Other major refugee groups in Indonesia include people fleeing conflict and repression in Afghanistan, particularly since the resurgence of the Taliban.

Mr. Ullah said four of his six children were born in Indonesia, but are denied the right to a birth certificate or education. He has to scrape together donations to send them to a private school that takes refugees. One of his daughters, 12-year-old Sayfa Karim, said the family had hoped to go to another country when they first arrived in Indonesia by boat “but now we don’t think so.”

Rohingya refugees study together at a refugee camp in the village of Munasah Mee in Indonesia on Jan. 18. Indonesia is not a signatory to the global protocol on refugees.AZWAR IPANK/AFP via Getty Images

Countries party to the Refugee Convention

of 1951 and its 1967 protocol

MAP KEY

Parties to 1951

convention

Afghanistan

Myanmar

Pacific

Ocean

Parties to 1967

protocol

Bangladesh

Parties to both

convention

and protocol

Indonesia

Non-members

Australia

DETAIL

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Countries party to the Refugee Convention

of 1951 and its 1967 protocol

MAP KEY

Afghanistan

Parties to 1951

convention

Myanmar

Pacific

Ocean

Parties to 1967

protocol

Bangladesh

Parties to both

convention and

protocol

Indonesia

Australia

Non-members

DETAIL

the globe and mail,

Source: unhcr (base

map via getsnoopy)

Countries party to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 protocol

MAP KEY

Afghanistan

Parties to 1951

convention

Myanmar

Pacific

Ocean

Parties to 1967

protocol

Bangladesh

Parties to both

convention and

protocol

Indonesia

Non-members

Australia

DETAIL

the globe and mail,

Source: unhcr (base

map via getsnoopy)

On a map of countries party to the Refugee Convention, Southeast Asia is a large patch of non-signatory grey. A person fleeing Afghanistan could feasibly pass through eight countries before reaching one that accepts refugees: Australia. That is the destination for many – but once they land in Indonesia, they find themselves trapped in a system that is funded by Canberra and designed to prevent them from getting any further.

Since 2014, Australia’s offshore detention centres on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru have become notorious around the world, denounced by human-rights groups and refugee charities. The role Indonesia plays in this system is less discussed, but “has been crucial to Australia’s border controls way back to the late 1990s,” said Graham Thom, refugee co-ordinator at Amnesty International Australia.

“Australia saw Indonesia as really vital to stopping the boats coming this way,” he added.

Since 2000, Australia has funded Indonesian police and border patrols, along with a large system of detention centres and community housing operated in the country by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN agency. Between 2001 and 2018, when Canberra announced plans to wind down funding, Australia provided $350-million to the IOM for its operations in Indonesia. Australia is the primary funder of IOM operations there, and critics accuse the UN agency of essentially functioning as an arm of Australian border control. Canberra is still pledged to supporting refugees already within the system it helped establish, but will not fund those who have arrived since 2018, arguing that IOM facilities were themselves becoming a draw for refugees, an assertion challenged by many experts.

While IOM shelters provide necessary basic services to detainees, there have also been reports of “inhumane conditions, solitary confinement, lack of basic essentials and medical care, physical and sexual abuse, and severe overcrowding,” according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

John Joniad, a Rhohinyga from Myanmar, landed in Indonesia in 2013 and lived there for eight years.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

John Joniad is one of those refugees who experienced the brunt of these policies. He fled Myanmar in 2013 during sectarian violence and crackdowns against Rohingya by the military. Because the Burmese government does not regard Rohingya as citizens, most do not have passports, and Mr. Joniad was forced to slip across the border to Thailand, where he paid smugglers to get him first to Malaysia and then Indonesia, with the intention of going on from there to Australia.

Mr. Joniad attempted the final crossing to Australia, but was unsuccessful. Refugees who aren’t caught immediately by the coast guard or police are often forced to turn back because of rough seas. “I got on a boat with 50 other asylum seekers and sailed for one night,” he said. “However, we could not make it as we were arrested before we reached the land. They locked us in a hotel room for 24 hours in Jakarta.”

Mr. Joniad spent almost three months in detention in the Indonesian capital before being transferred to another centre in Manado, in North Sulawesi. After two years, he was released and moved into an IOM facility, but Mr. Joniad said the conditions there, too, were like a prison.

“I thought moving to IOM accommodation would mean I was free, but it was just an open prison, often more difficult than living in detention,” he said. “We were kept under surveillance by security forces 24 hours a day. Even when I had to buy stuff I was only allowed to go out for two hours, not allowed to engage with the local community.”

Mr. Joniad and other Rohingya refugees said they were often encouraged to repatriate, something that is not actually possible because of their lack of citizenship.

“IOM staff told refugees that if we accepted to return to our country, Australia would help us with flight fees and would give us $2,000,” he said. “Australia’s policy is to make life in Indonesia for refugees as hard as possible, so they will accept voluntary repatriation and go back to their own country.”

Mr. Joniad protests against Australia's refugee policy in 2016 at an IOM facility in Indonesia.Courtesy of John Joniad

Researchers Asher Hirsch and Cameron Doig describe the IOM’s role as “blue-washing,” using UN branding “to present a humanitarian veneer while carrying out rights-violating activities on behalf of Western nations.”

IOM representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a statement, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said Canberra “has long-standing arrangements to support Indonesia to manage its population of irregular migrants,” including an agreement “whereby funding is provided to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to provide basic accommodation, food, medical and counselling services,” as well as a program that “supports irregular migrants, who have limited prospects of settlement in Indonesia or a third country, to voluntarily return to their home country.”

“Australia’s borders are closed to illegal immigration,” a spokesperson said. “The tough border protection policies that have secured Australia’s borders against the threat of people smuggling and prevented people from dying at sea remain in place.”

As dire as the situation for refugees in the IOM system may be, conditions outside of it can be even worse. Many are homeless, living on the streets by UNHCR offices as they attempt to pressure the international community or the Indonesian government to help. Refugee charities say the homelessness situation has worsened since Australia scaled back funding for IOM.

Those refugees who try to organize report coming under pressure from the authorities. Before he was resettled in Canada last year, after spending almost a decade in Indonesia trying to get to a third country through the often slow-moving UNHCR system, Mr. Joniad said he was under constant threat. “Police and immigration authorities threatened me with being sent back to detention or imprisoned if I did not stop my activism,” he said.

Rohingya activist Shahad Deen is shown in an Indonesian prison earlier this month.Courtesy of Shahad Deen

Another refugee activist, Shahad Deen, spoke to The Globe from a crowded cell in Lhoksukon Prison, in northern Indonesia, where he is serving a six-year sentence for people smuggling. Mr. Deen, who has previously worked for the UNHCR and international news media as an interpreter, was accused by the authorities of paying fishermen in Aceh to help transport Rohingya from boats at sea to shore in June, 2020. Mr. Deen is appealing his conviction and says he was targeted for his role advocating on behalf of Rohingya in the country. Amnesty International previously raised concerns that he was “denied access to legal counsel and experienced ill-treatment” during detention.

“I asked the police and the courts to just show any evidence, any single proof that I was responsible for this,” Mr. Deen said, describing the incident he was charged over as “a purely humanitarian action by the fishermen to rescue the Rohingya from the sea.”

Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Like many other refugees, Mr. Deen had originally intended to go to Australia from Indonesia, which eventually proved impossible.

Almost all refugees who do make it to Australia do so under resettlement visas, which are granted primarily to asylum seekers in third countries, often people in UNHCR refugee camps. In 2020, Australia ranked third in the world for the number of resettlements, behind Canada and the U.S., a statistic the government has repeatedly used to defend its border policies.

Resettlement visas are a rarity within the wider asylum system, however, constituting only around 1 per cent of all refugees around the world. Most refugees do not or are not able to go through the bureaucracy of applying from abroad for resettlement, but are forced to flee their home and claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. This places an extra burden on countries near conflict zones or with long borders, while those that can keep refugees away physically are able to pick and choose who to accept for resettlement.

In terms of total numbers of refugees taken in, Australia ranks 48th, according to the most recent UNHCR statistics, at 56,229 people. By comparison, there are almost 3.7 million recognized refugees currently living in Turkey, 1.2 million in Germany and 125,427 in Canada.

Mr. Thom said Australia focuses on resettles to hide “the horrible human-rights abuses they are inflicting” through their system of boat pushbacks and offshore processing on Manus and Nauru, as well as the arbitrary detention of those few refugees who do make it to Australia by plane, who can be held for years without trial.

Both Mr. Thom and Mr. Joniad, the Rohingya refugee, were cautiously optimistic about growing support within Australia for community sponsorships following the same model as Canada, which was approved by the government last year. “Once the community is involved, you get to meet refugees, you understand they are just ordinary people. It takes away all that demonizing from certain elements in the media,” Mr. Thom said. “And you actually get a groundswell of support behind refugee protection more broadly. And that’s what I think we’ve lost in Australia. That empathy. And so hopefully this will be a way that that can be re-established.”

But for the vast majority of refugees in Indonesia, including the newly arrived Rohingya, resettlement could take years, and may never come at all. Instead, they will remain in limbo, struggling to survive while various governments argue about their fate.

For Mr. Joniad, at least, there was a happy ending. He now lives in Toronto, after Northern Lights Canada, a refugee charity, helped connect him with a sponsor family. “I finally have a country to call home. I never had a country. Even when I was in Myanmar I was considered an illegal immigrant, most of my rights were denied,” he said. “Finally in Canada, even though I wasn’t born here, I can call Canada my home.”

Mr. Joniad hoists a Canadian flag with his sponsorship family at the Toronto airport this past September.Courtesy of John Joniad


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