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Why 'abandoned' refugees in Indonesia are sewing their lips together and self-immolating

SBS News - December 9, 2021

Hazara refugee Reza Akbari* is living a life in limbo. The 24-year-old hasn't been allowed to work, study or even drive during the eight years he's been stranded in Indonesia.

"I'm just eating and sleeping like the others here," he told SBS News.

Mr Akbari is one of over 13,000 refugees in Indonesia with no prospects of being resettled into other countries.

Now they have risen up in anger and desperation by placing the blame against the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): the body they depend on for help.

Thousands have rallied together in the past few weeks, setting up camps in front of the UNHCR office and the International Organization for Migration office in Jakarta, demanding more prompt assistance and using the Twitter hashtag #EndTo10YearsInLimbo to raise their voices internationally.

The situation in Indonesia has become even direr after a 22-year-old Hazara man set himself on fire last week after a debilitating wait to feel safe in a new country.

Other men have sewn their lips together in an act of symbolic protest after feeling like their community has not been listened to by the UNHCR or Indonesian officials.

The refugee crisis in Indonesia

Mr Akbari was 17 years old when he fled Pakistan to Indonesia in 2014, leaving his mother and siblings behind after facing ongoing persecution for his identity as a Hazara.

"I don't know how my family will stay alive. I'm my mother's son and I cannot help her right now, or my sister or my brothers," Mr Akbari said.

"I go out from my room and take a picture with a fake smile and send to my mum... when I see her picture, I just cry," he said.

More than half of the refugees in Indonesia are from Afghanistan, with the majority of them Hazara – an ethnic Shia minority group in Afghanistan who have faced the brunt of attacks from the Taliban and other extreme Sunni militant groups for decades.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, so it will not permanently resettle any of its refugees into its own country.

Instead, it liaises with the UNHCR to find other resettlement options in other nations like Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

This leaves people like Mr Akbari waiting up to 10 years with little to no support from Indonesian officials.

Refugees in Indonesia are subject to restricted living conditions: they are unable to receive an education, obtain working rights to support their families overseas, or get a driver licence.

Hazara refugee Sajjad Askary is a deputy chair within the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, and said the process in Indonesia leaves thousands of people in limbo with no certainty.

"They don't have a timeline. They don't know what's happening to them," Mr Askary said. "Afghan and Hazara refugees can't work, they can't even drive a motorbike, they can't get a licence. Young children are not able to go to school."

Many people like Mr Akbari have criticised the UNHCR for limited progress in shaping positive short-term or long-term futures for refugees.

"The UNHCR officers come to us and say there is no news for us, and that they are doing the best they can for us, but it's not really much," he said.

The UNHCR said the refugee problem in Indonesia is dependent on the refugee caps of resettlement countries.

"Resettlement countries unfortunately only accept less than 1.5 per cent of the 26 million refugees in need worldwide today," UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific's spokesperson Catherine Stubberfield said.

"Many of these countries have reduced their resettlement quota over the past few years, accepting only the most vulnerable refugees.

"UNHCR is deeply concerned by the situation of refugees protesting in Indonesia, including recent incidents of self-harm in Medan and in Pekanbaru.

"We have been in regular contact with those protesting, providing counselling and psychological support to those who are willing to accept this assistance."

Australia's role

Australia announced in 2014 that any person who has registered their status as a refugee in UNHCR Indonesia will never be allowed to resettle into Australia.

Mr Askary describes himself as lucky, coming to Australia by boat after spending time as a refugee in Indonesia and Christmas Island – only one year before Australia's hard-line policy was announced.

But he hopes his fellow Hazara community members will be afforded the same fortunate fate.

"UNHCR needs to work together with organisations to lobby the Australian government. Many of these abandoned refugees, particularly Hazara refugees, have close family members and social networks in Australia," Mr Askary said.

After the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in August this year, Mr Askary said it is critical for the Australian government to reconsider its stance to help those in need of protection.

"In the likelihood that Afghanistan plunges into further civil war and violence, the Australian government must be open to the idea of creating a special quota for the Hazaras in Afghanistan who are facing ethnic cleansing and are at risk of imminent risk of genocide," he said.

Back in Indonesia, Mr Akbari said he will die trying to help his family – and called on the Australian community to play their part in assisting refugees in Indonesia.

"Please take our hand and please do something for Hazaras in Indonesia. We are really tired in here, we just need to say and live with our family and I really miss my family," he said. "We just want a normal life like other people. We are also human."

SBS News contacted the Department of Home Affairs for comment.

[(*) Name has been changed to protect the person's identity.]

Source: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/why-abandoned-refugees-in-indonesia-are-sewing-their-lips-together-and-self-immolating/3d61331d-159d-45f6-922a-7854f3d52a7