ASYLUM SEEKERS and refugees residing in Indonesia have protested against the United Nations refugee body for lengthy processes and what some perceive as a discriminatory selection process based upon nationality and location in Indonesia.
Iranian asylum seekers and refugees staged demonstrations in Jakarta, Makassar and Surabaya on Monday to demand the UNHCR speed up the processes of Refugee Status Determination (RSD), appeals, and ultimately resettlement to third countries.
Some 14,500 asylum seekers and refugees are currently residing in Indonesia – a non-signatory to the Refugee Convention – awaiting resettlement elsewhere without rights to education or employment.
Iranian nationals frustrated
“We understand the Iranian refugees and asylum seekers conducted a protest in Makassar and Surabaya on Monday to ask for resettlement,” UNHCR Indonesia public information officer Mitra Suryono said in a statement to Asian Correspondent.
A report from Jakarta police said 20 people attended a protest outside the UNHCR’s office in the Indonesian capital on Monday, holding signs that read “No to racial discrimination” and “We can not be silent we need justice.”
Another banner addressed to Western governments read: “Please consider the Iranian refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia [sic] whom need your help, we seek peace and justice.
“We believe we are also vulnerable. We have been forgotten.”
A refugee in Surabaya named Arvin* told Asian Correspondent that 28 Iranians picketed the local International Organisation for Migration (IOM) office, because they had been denied permission to travel outside of the city.
“If you leave Surabaya, we will put you in the jail,” Arvin claimed Indonesian immigration and the IOM had told him. “[But] there is no one to send our voice to Jakarta,” he said.
According to the 31-year-old from Iran, many within his community believe the UNHCR unfairly favours refugees from Afghanistan and other countries such as Somalia or Sudan in terms of RSD, appeals processes and resettlement to third countries like Australia or the United States.
These sentiments were shared by an Iranian woman living in Makassar named Leila*. She told Asian Correspondent “the majority [of migrants in Indonesia] are Afghans, we see them, we interact with each other in our daily lives.”
“They get quickly interviewed, given a refugee card. If they get rejected, their appeal takes at most a year. Most of the time Afghans know all about their process,” she said.
Another problem is that Afghan translators are always used for Iranian asylum seekers, said Leila. While both peoples speak a variation of Farsi, she said there are often “misunderstandings [for Iranians] … it caused damage to their cases and the result of their interviews.”
Resettlement becoming tougher
The UNHCR Indonesia rejected claims of discrimination, stating “regardless of where the person is from UNHCR registers and assesses asylum claims accordingly to our RSD procedures and based on the merit of each case.”
Last week, hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers and refugees also protested outside the offices of the IOM and UNHCR in Makassar, resulting in the arrests of 18 people. Some of the demonstrators claimed they had resided in Makassar for seven years without resettlement, reported local media.
But Arvin claimed he has received mixed messages from the UNHCR and the embassies of possible resettlement countries. He said UN official told him: “Your country is safe. If you have a problem you should wait here [in Indonesia], if no problem you should go back.”
Having emailed Australian and US embassies, however, Arvin says they told him, “If you have a refugee card we will accept you.”
Leila said her refugee application was rejected by the UNHCR and that she submitted an appeal in April 2015, but is yet to receive a verdict. “Nobody in the office of Jakarta or Makassar has sent any contact about my case,” she said.
The UNHCR Indonesia emphasises long waits are outside of their control, as western countries reduce resettlement places – particularly for refugees residing in the Asia Pacific. “Globally less than one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled,” said Suryono.
“We continue to submit the most vulnerable refugees for consideration by resettlement countries but ultimately these countries make their own decisions on whether or not to accept UNHCR’s referrals.”
Australia, Canada and the US are the only countries who have accepted any refugees from Indonesia in 2017.
Australia has drastically decreased the numbers it accepts from Indonesia, implementing a policy in November 2014 that it would not resettle any refugee registered with the UNHCR Indonesia after July of that year.
Neither the Canadian nor American embassies in Jakarta responded to Asian Correspondent’s requests for comment as to whether they will continue to resettle refugees residing in Indonesia.
“Resettlement is the prerogative of each resettlement country. In general, UNHCR does not discuss details of resettlement arrangements by country to avoid raising expectations unnecessarily,” said Suryono.
Indonesia tolerant of refugees, for now
“Sometimes I feel really, really exhausted. All the time actually,” said Leila, who has lived with uncertainty in Indonesia for years.
A presidential decree released by Indonesia in January reflects the government’s commitment to improving coordination between local and national governments in handling migrants who are in prolonged transit in Indonesia.
Nevertheless, the immigration department asserted last week it would “not host them forever.”
“UNHCR consistently explains that we continue to urge resettlement countries to increase their refugee intake globally,” said Suryono. “However due to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis, resettling refugees to third countries has become more challenging.”
The general feeling among people who work in this field in Indonesia is that the situation is getting much more difficult, an anonymous source told Asian Correspondent.
“Until longer term solutions are found, in Indonesia UNHCR continues to work in close coordination with the Government as they provide protection and assistance for refugees,” added Suryono.
*Names have been changed