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Refugees in Indonesia are "living like ghosts"

Monday, 26 March 2018 07:38 GMT

Sharifa Begum, 15, a refugee, sits alongside the Rohingya family that adopted her at a migrants accommodation block in Medan, Indonesia, Feb. 23, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael Taylor

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Refugees are human - just like everyone else we have hopes, dreams and aspirations

Not long ago, a young father hanged himself in Bogor, West Java. He was a refugee trapped in Indonesia.

After the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) informed refugees in Indonesia that it is unlikely they will ever be resettled, he lost all hope - and with it his life.

The lack of a long-term solution for refugees is taking its toll on the resilience of vulnerable people here in Indonesia. His despair represents all refugees here. I know because I am also one of the 14,000 refugees trapped in Indonesia.

According to UNHCR, during the first six months of 2017, only about 322 refugees out of over 14,000 refugees here were resettled to a third country.
Indonesia, once seen as a transit point for those seeking refuge, is now looking more and more like a permanent home. But this permanent home does not provide permanent protection.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. So people like my sister and I - who made our way to Indonesia in pursuit of safety - are now safe from ethnic-based violence, but not from discrimination and poverty.

Indonesia tolerates us but does not allow us to work or study. We spend our time wondering what's next for us? Where will our next meal come from?

What will the UNHCR say the next time they visit? How will we survive without being able to work?

Our nightmares are fuelled by the constant reminder that if we wanted to move back to Pakistan, where I was born, or Afghanistan, where our parents are from, UNHCR would assist in our relocation. But both are impossible to go back to - and UNHCR can't assist us here.

When I fled the city of Quetta, Pakistan, in 2014, I was only 15 years old. Part of the ethnic Hazara minority there, we were targeted by extremists who killed our people regularly. I left in search of a safer life and never imagined I would end up in Indonesia, living like a ghost.

Most kids grow up dreaming of being a professional basketball player or a marine biologist but I just wanted to live in a safe place. A place where I didn't have to worry that one day I might be murdered for simply being who I am, a young Hazara man.

Anxious and determined, I fled Pakistan with dreams of one day finding sanctuary and rebuilding my life. But instead, I am stuck in perpetual limbo, robbed of my basic human rights.

Recently, UNHCR visited refugees in our area to inform them that they may never be resettled. So, just as the number of refugees worldwide has reached record levels, resettlement options are dwindling.

Resettlement is not a solution and neither is repatriation - because a refugee is by definition a person who has been assessed as unable to return to their home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

This leaves integration in the transit host country as the only solution - but integration is impossible without the rights of a citizen. So what can we do?


Rather than curse the darkness, I decided to light a candle. Three years ago, I helped establish an informal learning centre giving refugee children living in Indonesia access to a basic education while we await our uncertain fate.

More than 30 volunteers from the refugee community, most of whom are around university age, work tirelessly at the centre. We teach 140 children aged between five and 17, and we also offer English classes to empower women and young mothers.

However, the centre is under constant threat of being shut down by the authorities. Financially, the centre is only operational due to generous donations from individuals, and each new rental period finds us begging for funds.

The learning centre is a vital lifeline for both the students and volunteer teachers, but we are still left wondering: What future are we educating these children for?

"I wish people would take time to get to know me first before judging who I am as a person," said Muhaddisa, a 13-year-old refugee girl from Afghanistan who is trying to learn the Indonesian language while continuing her studies at the learning centre.

"When I get to meet someone who is not a refugee, they always think I'm poor and uneducated."

Muhaddisa is right. I want people to understand that the label "refugee" is a term encompassing people from all religions, ethnicities, social status and backgrounds. It doesn't make us weak, illiterate or helpless.


Rather than being looked down upon, refugees need a helping hand to lift us up during this difficult time.
This helping hand could be in the form of a friendship, a chance for us to volunteer or attend courses, and even skilled individuals to assist us at the learning centre.

The thing is, refugees are human. Just like everyone else we have hopes, dreams and aspirations, but we were just not lucky enough to be born in a safe country free from persecution.

Most refugees have already been through so much that all we want is some peace and quiet in our lives. We respect the rules and we respect our

Indonesian hosts, but we still want an opportunity to prove who we are and what we can do.

We just want a future before our resilience ebbs away. We want you to see us for who we are, not the circumstances we find ourselves in.

We want you to acknowledge the injustice of our situation and work with us to find solutions. We want your friendship and respect, not your pity.

This blog is part of a series on the challenges of modern-day migration. For more on the situation of refugees in Indonesia, read Living in limbo: Indonesia's refugees face uncertain future