Beneath the glitzy, modern towers of central Jakarta, with the sun reflecting its heat upon the ground, a handful of tents are perched on the side of the road, right next to the UNHCR building in Kebon Sirih. These tents however are not temporary; these have been the permanent homes for many refugees stranded in Jakarta.
Mahmood is a 40-year-old Afghani refugee who have resided in Indonesia for over 5 years. Out of fear of being persecuted, he ran away from his home, leaving his wife and 8 kids, searching for a safe place to call home. $8000 was how much he paid the people smugglers to get him out of Afghanistan.
His journey is difficult and rough to say the least, and far from over. In 2013 he left Afghanistan in the hopes of coming to Australia. He first went to India for 12 days, then Malaysia for 4 days, and then he took a boat to Medan, and then to Jakarta. Here, he registered his name to UNHCR, before making his way to Australia.
“In the past, in January 2014, I came to Australia by boat. Then 12 days with the immigration, border protection of Australia in the big boat. After that they send me back to Jakarta, in the orange boat. My boat was demolished,” he said.
Australia has a policy of returning boats carrying refugees before it reaches its shore. In the process, boats carrying refugees are intercepted by Australia’s border force before entering Australia’s water, then refugees are ultimately transferred into a small, cramped, and dingy orange boats to be sent back to Java. Mahmood fell victim to Australia’s petty politics of the gambling of refugees’ lives in returns for popularity with its electorates. He was officially deemed a refugee by UNHCR 20 months after he first registered.
“I’m hopeless now,” he said when asked of what hopes he has.
Mahmood is just one case in many of refugees who are stuck in transit countries, in danger of returning back to their homes yet unable to go their intended destinations. In Southeast Asia alone, countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have been the host of many refugees from Somalia, to Rohingya to Afghanistan among others.
Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) and Adeline met Mahmood and other Refugees last year to celebrate Christmas.
The problem however is that refugees in these countries ultimately have no rights. As neither Thailand, Malaysia nor Indonesia have signed or ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugee Rights, they therefore have no rights in being there, nor have any rights to citizenship. They are not only living in poor conditions, but unable to receive education or proper health care, unable to work and risk being deported due to their legal status as being “illegal aliens.” As the world is becoming increasingly isolationist, the case of refugees being stuck in transit countries will only rise.
Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia claims that despite not a party to the Refugee Convention, they would provide minimal protection to refugees, including adherence to non-refoulement principle on humanitarian grounds. Yet this is promise is fragile to political changes, and does not insure refugees proper living conditions.
While the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has a body to protect human rights, their refugee protection mandate remains weak. It is therefore necessary for states within ASEAN to ratify the Refugee Convention to assure some rights to refugees and for the region to cooperate in creating a plan of action for the protection of refugees. But more importantly, it is necessary to tackle the original reasons that cause people to flee their home. In an era where states are increasingly becoming more isolationist in a more globalised world, it is no longer possible to simply turn a blind eye against conflict that can cause an influx of people to flee their homes. Origin, transit and destination countries are responsible for protecting the rights of refugees.
In the wake of the International day of Human Rights, Mahmood’s case reminds us of the plight of those who are persecuted and risked their lives in the hopes of finding a better place to live. In the spirit of ‘gotong royong,’ we must remember that help is also needed for those who are not a citizen and who is simply looking for safety.
This article is written by Adeline Tinessia. Adeline has been intern at HRWG for the past couple of months. She is studying a bachelors of International Security Studies, taking a focus on Southeast Asia and specifically on Indonesia.