From the ferry terminal in Batam, a city on Indonesia’s far north-western border, you can look across the narrow strait to Singapore. But only a short walk from the waterfront, more than 200 men are passing listless days and curfewed nights in cramped dorm rooms. Men sit in rows under the tropical sun, raising their arms in crosses above their heads and chanting, “Seven years in limbo! Enough, enough!”
They are bored, but buffed. Their DIY gym equipment offers some reprieve: old buckets filled with cement, stuck to the ends of metal poles. “They want to prepare themselves,” Shamsullah Husseini, a 21-year-old Hazara refugee, tells me when I visit. “They want to be ready for the country that accepts them.”
Something we both know goes unsaid: it’s unlikely they will ever get resettled.
Over the past two years, I’ve been reporting on Indonesia’s refugee community for The Wait podcast – which is released today via the Guardian’s Full Story. My co-host, Mozhgan Moarefizadeh, is a refugee from Iran. She has been waiting in Jakarta since 2013. With her extraordinary access and insight, we take listeners into the forever in-between. We visit the unlikely homes of people caught on the run: a forgotten church garden, an old military compound, rundown hotels.
On the other side of Batam city, scores of families reside in a shabby hotel. As I make my way in, police officers tail me, take my photo and ask a series of questions. In a makeshift classroom, refugees thank me for coming to speak with them. “No media came,” one man says. “You are the first one to come here … to record what is happening with the refugees in Batam.”
Yes, the boats have stopped. But there are almost 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Indonesia, where the impacts of Australia’s border policies continue to reverberate.
In Batam, the men’s accommodation is “open community housing”, Husseini explains. “But it is still a prison because we are bound by unnecessary and restrictive rules. We have a curfew … we have to be present at 6pm.”
Most of these refugees and asylum seekers spent years in immigration detention centres before authorities transferred them to community shelters organised by the International Organisation for Migration Indonesia (IOM). About two-thirds of the country’s refugee and asylum seeker population is supported by IOM, an intergovernmental body whose Indonesian mission largely relies on Australian government funding. IOM also administered the incarceration of asylum seekers and refugees in immigration detention centres from 2000 to March 2018.
Australia is effectively pushing its border into neighbouring countries, according to a Monash University researcher and senior policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia, Asher Hirsch. “Rather than supporting refugees and making sure they are looked after through the UN refugee agency, [Australia] is instead funding IOM to run a number of deterrence and border control-type campaigns and programs,” he says.
Now that refugees are no longer arriving in Australia from Indonesia, that funding is being reduced.
Indonesia was once a transit country where refugees would spend months or a couple of years, at most, before being resettled elsewhere. Australia and the US resettled the majority of refugees from Indonesia, but in recent years both countries have dramatically reduced their refugee intakes from there. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is now telling refugees they may have to wait in Indonesia for decades, and might never be resettled at all.
Indonesia has not signed the UN refugee convention, and refugees and asylum seekers live in the country without basic rights, such as the right to work, marry, study, hold a bank account or travel freely. Refugees receive minimal acknowledgement in Indonesian law, and as they stay longer, the country is facing new challenges.
“Local communities have fear,” says Ilham, an Indonesian immigration officer in the city of Pekanbaru. (Like many Indonesians, Ilham goes by only one name.) He believes the issue is poorly understood, by both local communities and government decision-makers. “They’re afraid these migrants will create problems – for example, Sunni and Shia tensions,” he says. “They’re afraid that they will have relationships with the girls. They’re afraid how long they are going to live in Pekanbaru.”
The UNHCR representative to Indonesia, Ann Maymann, says Indonesia needs to take responsibility for the situation: “I don’t think that the solution is that all refugees should go to Australia.” But she says Australia’s funding and interventions have played a crucial role in creating the challenge that Indonesia faces.
“That set-up has put Indonesia into that role of not having an independent refugee policy. It can be seen that Australia is just pushing the problem of the refugees to Indonesia, right? But at the end of the day, we are talking about human beings – they are sitting and just watching their lives pass by.
“More needs to be done,” Maymann says. “There are a lot of mental health issues … We are not able to meet the full range of needs of a human being.”
In the podcast, Mozhgan unravels the diversity and complexity of the refugee community. Through a series of unflinchingly raw radio diaries, she draws listeners into the deeply challenging psychological experience of a refugee trapped in transit.
Because of Covid-19, Mozhgan and I record the show’s narration via video calls. On screen, I can see she’s sporting fake nails and wearing a baseball cap backwards over a short, asymmetrical haircut. In many ways, her Jakarta lifestyle is a world away from the men boxed into dorm rooms in Batam. But when I tell her about their homemade weights and their quest to prepare themselves, there’s an immediate glint of recognition.
“I can relate to that,” she says. “Ten times a day there are things that I want to do, and I hear, ‘Later, in the next country; later, in the third country. After you are resettled.’
“It’s just a painful, hopeful wait.”