Asylum seekers in Indonesia-alive, but not living

Jul 11, 2022
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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In one of its nastier theological fabrications seemingly driven by schadenfreude, the Catholic Church invented purgatory – heaven’s waiting room where sins were cleansed oftentimes by fire. The medieval idea has been largely smothered by modern church teachings more in line with Christ’s compassion, but the worldly equivalent thrives next door through Australian indifference.

Cisarua is a once picturesque and now overcrowded hilltown about 70 km south of Jakarta. The cool climate draws rich Indonesians escaping from the world’s third most polluted city a thousand metres below – and foreign escapees from persecution 6,000 kilometres to the north.

On 19 July 2013, PM Kevin Rudd declared asylum seekers on boats who failed to reach Australia by that date would never be allowed to settle. With that appeasement to tense voters imagining a tsunami of Asians, Rudd and his successors condemned thousands of families to a future gutted of purpose.

Only the most extreme evildoers get infinite sentences; the rest can put crosses on calendars. Though not the offshore asylum seekers. They’ve been convicted of wanting to live free of fear and build a better world, believing Australians shared these values.

Boats organised by people smugglers and launched from Indonesian islands were turned back by armed sailors under the spine-stiffening title Operation Sovereign Borders. That left around 14,000 human beings stranded on the north side of the Arafura Sea.

Indonesia hasn’t signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, nor does it have a system to determine their status. So the national government has flipped problems to the UN High Commission for Refugees, which is supposed to ‘identify solutions for refugees in the country.’

Finding the agency’s centre in Jakarta used to be easy. Its steel door was occasionally narrowly opened for selected individuals. In the surrounding streets listless bodies curled in doorways.

Few would talk to the media and always no names. All seemed depressed, and suspicious. They had imported the fears they’d fled. As ‘illegal aliens’ the threat of deportation was real, though Jakarta mainly uses this tool against tourist visa overstayers.

Now the UNHCR is best located by protestors who shout their demands for resettlement as they did on World Refugee Day, 20 June this year. That’s when we learned that more than 100 million around the globe have been forced to flee or be resigned to tyranny. The current euphemism is ‘involuntary immobility’.

In any case, the Jakarta officials were not in their fortress to hear the shouting outside. They’d decamped to a cooking show in a shopping mall and a ‘gala event’ at the Westin Hotel. This was to ‘engage women and child refugees in Indonesia to be trained in fashion modelling, styling and choreography.’ Jonathan Swift, we need you now.

Away from the catwalk the placard-wavers were wasting their lungs and the money they’d spent getting to the HQ, as Australian Jolyon Hoff knows well. As a film-maker he’s spent years dealing with bureaucracies while seeking project funds.

When Rudd yanked away the welcome mat Hoff was in Jakarta and wondered about the stranded. So he headed to Cisarua, known as the people smugglers’ recruiting patch. Before Covid, it was also a sleaze centre where wealthy Arabs rented villas for the orgies they’d never dare run in Riyadh.

The tolerant locals let the empty rooms to the refugees even though most are Shi’a hounded by fundamentalists. Sunni Muslims dominate Indonesia and call Shi’a a ‘deviant sect’.

Hoff found a scene at odds with World Vision videos showing queues of mothers on mud plain tent lines, humping buckets by day, fearing brigands at night.

Reliable stats are rarer than visas, but it seems most refugees in Indonesia have found rentals using savings and funds sent by relatives. Some places are hovels, all are basic, cramped, several to a room. In Cisarua, the foreigners – maybe about 4,000 – live apart from the locals. Few have learned Indonesian expecting their journey to resume after a brief hiatus.

Instead they’ve been sunk by the waves of political reality, as Alfred Pek, an Indonesian film-maker in Sydney argues: ‘Regional leaders in Indonesia have isolationist refugee management policies and a lack of political will, contributing to the invisibility of the issue. Understandably, there are simply more pressing domestic issues that affect a much larger local population.’

In brief Jakarta doesn’t care and wont unless there are outbreaks of hate and violence. That’s when Canberra might get fidgety. If PM Anthony Albanese is dinkum about resetting relations with Indonesia then here’s a chance to get on the right side of President Joko Widodo and the economy – hasten resettlement and help fix the labour shortage.

But that would mean driving a stake through the political bogeyman of people smugglers spotting weakness and restarting the vile trade, though there are no reports of recruiters in Cisarua. It’s believed they’ve quit because they’ve sucked all potential customers dry. The market’s now in Sri Lanka.

In Cisarua nine years ago, Hoff bumped into photographer Muzafar Ali who’d worked for the UN Development Programme in Afghanistan and with the Jesuits.

He’d seen too much gore through his lens to believe in change. One scene haunts still: An ambulance attending a blast was itself used by a suicide bomber. The death toll was more than 100.

Ali is a Hazara, the largest refugee ethnic group in Indonesia and long tyrannised by the Taliban. He said he was singled out because he’d worked with Westerners. When soldiers stopped his car and questioned his wife and daughter about their lives the family knew it was decision time.

Ali, who has charisma in spades, is a standout success story that masks the despair of those left behind. Now 36 he won the Oz visa lotto after three years in limbo. He lives in Adelaide as an Australian citizen, studying law, policy and politics plus sociology at uni. His wife Zahra has qualified as a teacher.

The UNHCR defines a refugee as ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.’

Those who meet the test can get on a resettlement list. One report claims 468 refugees got out of Indonesia to third countries last year: ‘At this rate it would take 28 years for all to gain resettlement.’

Many have been in Cisarua for up to nine years. They say pleas for progress updates go unanswered by UNHCR. Instead they’re told to wait for a phone call and be patient, an instruction which ignores human behaviour.

Relationships develop. Babies become bewildered children, resentful adolescents and bitter adults. Real, imagined or manufactured slurs can explode into anger and harsh words. The zealots’ weapon of choice is blasphemy, a charge few are prepared to stare down.

The latest is the arrest of six men over a bar chain’s free alcohol promotion for patrons named Mohammed, a common name in Indonesia. Booze is supposed to be haram (forbidden) for Muslims.

Hoff started taping a one-hour doco The Staging Post. Although it focuses on achievements the title suggests a swift Western-saloon shootout, when the reality is debilitating delays which have reportedly led to self-harm and suicides.

Many look well, dress neatly and can be stimulating conversationists. Others are wary and withdrawn. Their mental stress rises to the surface when depression overwhelms. Interviews start buoyantly but soon turn to tears. Despair multiplies, a virus hard to suppress.

Those once hoping to land in Australia have abandoned preferences. ‘We just want somewhere that’s safe’, said Sara Salehi, 20. That means a place where she and her siblings can learn, build careers (three want to work in medicine) express themselves, wear what suits, go where they want, worship how they choose, fall in love, start families – all free of the dictates of grim greybeards nursing AK-47s.

‘Despite everything we’re still better off here,’ she said. ‘In Afghanistan I’d have been forced to marry a soldier, be controlled by him and now have children.’

She’s a member of a family of liberals that would enhance any state where they’d be welcome, though that horizon blurs as the years pass. Their time in Cisarua has been marked by pain, emotional and physical, including Covid and dengue fever

Dad Mohamad Nasim was a baker who married Sohilla when she was 14. The next dozen years or so she gave birth to five girls and three boys, all raised to have open minds. They say this made them a Taliban target.

The young people have mastered English in depth and are hungry for education. They flew into Indonesia, allegedly spirited through immigration by people smugglers working with corrupt officials.

The 2022 Australian budget added 16,500 humanitarian places for Afghan nationals over four years, increasing the Refugee and Humanitarian Programme to 17,875 places each year until 2025-26. These people will come from camps around the world. 

In Cisarua in 2013, Ali and Hoff found a common bond in seeking to ease the plight of the stateless, no way back, no way forward, no legal opportunity to work or learn. Ali proposed a partnership with UNHCR for a school saying education was a basic human right and vital to keep the kids hopeful. The offer was ignored.

Hoff then introduced his mate to a quality of Australian culture which swerves past the yawners – DIY.

Ali roused the other asylum seekers on the need to work together despite their disparate backgrounds, ethnicities and ambitions. Hoff tossed in $200 a month to rent space for a classroom. The men feared risking their refugee status so held back; the fearless women became teachers.

Within a week there were 40 students and a similar number on the waiting list. A community, which had previously not existed, formed around the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre. People who’d kept to themselves now found a motivation to meet and be busy in a neutral place.

Pre-Covid stories and videos online drew overseas visitors with books, teacher-training skills, syllabus know-how and cash for rent. Within three months the school had moved to a bigger space.

The Centre now has more than 200 students. Cisarua Learning Ltd is an Australian registered charity and parent organisation for CRLC. It funds five other refugee-led learning centres in West Java.

In June this year, they ran a Facebook Telethon. The last event pre-Covid brought in about $80,000 but this time the pledges are under $30,000. Donor fatigue or inflation? Could be both.

The schools teach in English and keep religion off the syllabus. The CRLC philosophy is ‘that refugees are part of the solution …the refugee crisis is a non-political humanitarian situation, and we support refugee agency, gender equality and the right to education.’

Staff say UNHCR has turned up only once in five years, but the school did get some unidentified visitors in May photographing the kids and handing out playing cards with a ‘zero chance’ message of getting to Australia by boat.

The cards are marked ‘Australian Government’. The Embassy in Jakarta has been asked to authenticate and explain why the children were snapped without parents’ permission. No response.

The CRLC claims to be the first refugee-run school in Indonesia, and has inspired an education revolution. This is warming, but unsurprising: People with the guts and smarts to seek a better life are often the best and brightest. Afghanistan’s loss could be Australia’s gain.

Said Hoff: ‘Before the school started the refugees had very little agency to control their lives. They were seen as victims and weren’t treated as human beings.

‘Now they are teachers and managers running their own school. They have a sense of purpose and value, vital for mental health. The school has given them community.’

What they don’t have is a future.

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