UNBEKNOWNST to many Indonesians, their country is a temporary home to a growing population of some 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers in transit.
The word ‘transit’ is, however, somewhat misleading, as 6000 asylum seekers are still awaiting their first interview with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta. Many have been living in limbo in Indonesia for years, even after being granted legal refugee status, hoping that a third country will place them in an ever-limited resettlement placement.
Despite historically tolerating people seeking asylum, Indonesia is not signatory to the Refugee Convention, meaning that transit migrants come under the auspices of the already-overstretched UNHCR. In Indonesia, these people are denied rights to work, formal education and healthcare, whilst often being charged higher prices than locals for daily expenses like rent.
Dodging police and immigration officials has become part of life in transit for many, as the government increasingly seeks to crack down on migrants crossing Indonesia’s porous maritime borders illegally. Since 2009, it has established a network of 13 detention centres across the archipelago, requesting assistance from Australia in August to build another Rudenim or ‘detention house’.
Veronica Koman of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta) has called for President Joko Widodo or Jokowi to reconsider a “long-neglected” draft presidential regulation on refugee asylum seekers in Indonesia, which she asserts would “at least ensure people fleeing persecution are not criminalised when they reach our country.”
Despite a tenuous and difficult situation, some transit migrants have managed to build flourishing, albeit temporary, communities within Indonesia. Cisarua, 70 kilometres south of Jakarta in West Java, is the most potent example of this – home to a significant population of refugee asylum seekers estimated to be between 2000 and 3000 people. Here, there are at least three volunteer-run schools that educate almost 200 primary to junior high school aged children. Other community programs include a refugee-run judo club and futsal teams.
Both local and Australian civil society groups and artists are increasingly engaged with the issue of asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. One such example is a newly-founded, Melbourne-based social enterprise named Beyond the Fabric, which provides a means for women in Cisarua to sell their handicrafts online. Beyond the Fabric partners with the Refugee Women Support Group Indonesia, a grassroots community organisation that provides a raft of activities for women: swimming lessons, classes in Bahasa Indonesia and English, and classes in music and healthcare, handicrafts and sewing.
“Here in Cisarua, refugee women come from different countries and different ethnicities. Through this group, they have become friends with each other and through these classes, women become aware about our different cultures,” says Kalsoom Jaffari, founder of the Refugee Women Support Group Indonesia. “When they come to class, they forget their problems. They relax and they laugh.”
Twenty women and a tailor from the handicraft class make the pants that Beyond the Fabric sells. “We are simply providing an online platform for these talented women to sell their beautiful handicrafts,” says the organisation’s co-founder, Carly Copolov, a PhD student at Swinburne University.
For every pair of AUD$25 (US$19) pants sold by Beyond the Fabric, AUD$12 (US$9) goes to the woman who made them. The remaining proceeds go to sustaining the Refugee Women Support Group’s activities – paying for sewing machines, materials, electricity, food, water and transport.
The organisation’s mission is to restore a sense of “purpose and dignity to refugees who are living a vulnerable and precarious life in transit.” Through providing activities and a modest form of income, it aims to alleviate some of the stress, financial problems and health issues facing the community. Copolov says she also wants to “raise awareness of the plight of refugee women in Indonesia.”
“It’s not just that we are selling and you are buying our handicraft,” adds Jaffari, “It means you feel our pain and our problem. It gives us a purpose.”
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent