With few people-smuggling boats in operation, asylum seekers in Indonesia now face living on the streets as detention centres close their doors following Australia’s funding cuts, in what appears to be the latest deterrence strategy. By Nicole Curby.

Asylum seekers homeless in Indonesia

Leila Sultani, a Hazara asylum seeker.
Leila Sultani, a Hazara asylum seeker.

Outside the immigration detention centre in Kalideres, West Jakarta, 400 or so asylum seekers are living on the street, tightly wedged between a dirt footpath and the heavy passing traffic. Families mark out the space they now call home, crowded on thin rubber mats. Tropical sun beats down through listless days. Meals are infrequent, the exhaust fumes are thick.

The makeshift camp has been here, with fluctuating numbers of people, since November last year. Some have been assessed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and declared refugees. “The first month or two we complained every day,” says Dawood, a Sudanese man seeking asylum with his wife and four kids. “But it’s become normal. Yes, we’re always hungry and thirsty, but we’ve gotten used to it. We know everyone here.”

“We don’t have any other options,” says Jemilla, 28, as her two-year-old daughter climbs around in her lap. Jemilla came to Indonesia from Afghanistan in February with her husband and child. Their money has already run out and with no rights to work, no hope of resettlement and few services available, they say they want to be incarcerated in the Kalideres detention centre.

In Indonesia, detention was initially seen as a deterrent, a punitive measure intended to shut down the route through to Australia. Until 2014, most asylum seekers ended up in detention after being intercepted trying to cross to Australia by boat. But in recent years, very few boats have been leaving Indonesia. With nowhere else to go, asylum seekers have been voluntarily surrendering themselves to detention in growing numbers.

Jemilla and the others sleeping rough in Kalideres would like to do the same, but after the Australian government cut its funding to the Indonesian office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) earlier this year, detention is no longer an option. On March 15, IOM Indonesia closed its doors to new cases.

In fact, this year, more than 1600 asylum seekers, some assessed as refugees, have been released from detention in Indonesia, and there are plans to have the remaining 250 out by the end of December. Already, there are almost 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country, but the UNHCR reports that it only has enough funding to support 400 of the most vulnerable.

Since 2001, Australia has effectively financed the detention of asylum seekers in Indonesia by providing some $388 million to IOM Indonesia for duties, including the maintenance of detention centres and the provision of care to detainees. But Mark Getchell, IOM Indonesia’s outgoing chief of mission, says the decision to cut funding makes sense in the broader context of Australia’s shifting refugee strategy.

“I guess the thinking is, let’s try something new here, because it seems no more boats are leaving,” he says. “The prize is no longer getting to Australia, the prize now is resettlement – third-country resettlement from Indonesia. And what is facilitating that stay [in Indonesia] is IOM’s support to them while they’re here. If I can read the rationale of the Australian government: Well, if that’s turning into a pull factor, let’s deal with that.”


While asylum seekers in West Jakarta are clamouring to get into detention, in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, detainees are desperate for their release. After more than four years in detention, protests have sprung up over the poor conditions and the indefinite nature and arbitrary length of their incarceration. Demonstrations began in January and culminated in an eight-day hunger strike earlier this month. It was just the latest in a string of similar protests from inside immigration detention centres around Indonesia.

IOM Indonesia’s purported aim is to bring the country’s 13 detention centres into line with international human rights standards. However, according to Asher Hirsch, a senior policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia, the organisation has little accountability. “In order to stop people arriving by boat, Australia has outsourced its border policies to Indonesia,” he says. “Much of this funding and support for border controls, such as interceptions and detention, has been funnelled through the International Organization for Migration, an opaque intergovernmental organisation with no human rights mandate. These policies have resulted in thousands of refugees detained across Indonesia, with few options and little hope for the future.”

On the ground, asylum seekers reported being physically abused in detention centres, being kept in solitary confinement, receiving negligent medical care, having possessions withheld by guards and having to sleep sitting up because conditions were so overcrowded. Others alleged that corruption is widespread in the centres, quoting the going rate paid to guards for an outing to the shops, transfer to another detention centre or even for release, if they could muster the cash.

In the past, most asylum seekers in Indonesia relied on family and friends sending money, while others have lived off savings, because working risks imprisonment. But as the length of their stay stretches out, those funds are drying up.

According to IOM, those already in its caseload and living in the community will continue to receive accommodation and a $125 monthly stipend, despite the funding cuts. Instead, the impact of reduced funding will be felt in other ways, in cuts to already basic psychosocial supports and vocational training.

Asylum seekers, including those deemed refugees, say that IOM support allows them to live in subsistence conditions at best – by Indonesian standards, $125 a month is a frugal allowance, well below minimum wage. “How we manage, we don’t eat fruit, dairy products or milk powder,” says Zakhia, a 29-year-old mother of two living in Makassar, Sulawesi. “We can’t buy clothes. We can afford to eat red meat once every six months. Families can’t afford nappies so we use pieces of old plastic instead.”

Zakhia tells me that Leila Sultani, a lean, elderly Hazara lady who sits beside her, regularly skips meals for days at a time so she can afford to buy painkillers, in lieu of medical treatment. “She was very fat when she arrived,” Zakhia says. “She has lost 30 kilograms.”

IOM only provides assistance in emergency and life-threatening situations, and other medical costs are prohibitively expensive. When medical care is provided, it’s often delayed and painfully inadequate. Earlier this year, Hazara man Sayed Habib Husaini was paralysed from the waist down after a botched back operation at a Makassar hospital that took place under IOM care. He is now living in IOM community housing and is fighting to be considered a vulnerable case so that he will be one of the very few prioritised for resettlement. In the meantime, he is asking for nursing assistance to complete the most basic bodily functions, such as showering and going to the toilet.

Facing an uncertain future, and often base living conditions, depression is rife. In the final days of September, a father of five died by suicide in an IOM community housing facility in Batam in Riau province. After four years in Indonesia, including two spent in immigration detention, he wrote in his final note: “I am tired of everything.”


Australia once resettled the most refugees from Indonesia, followed by the United States. In 2014, Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, announced that anyone who registered with UNHCR Indonesia after July that year would never be resettled in Australia. President Donald Trump has dramatically reduced the US’s refugee intake as well. In Indonesia, the impact has been devastating. Last year UNHCR started informing all refugees in Indonesia that they would probably never be resettled. They now face the prospect of living a lifetime in a country that hasn’t signed the UN Refugee Convention and where they don’t have the most basic rights.

There is one option being encouraged that hasn’t been affected by funding cuts, regardless of one’s official status as refugee or asylum seeker, and whether they are part of IOM’s caseload. That is the offer to be sent home.

Assisted Voluntary Repatriation (AVR) promises a ticket and $2000 paid on arrival in the recipient’s home country. “It’s a kind of pressure,” says Asif Rahimi, a Hazara refugee. He says AVR forms were brought out when tensions were running high inside Balikpapan immigration detention centre, where he spent four years. “They are used like a threat,” Rahimi says. “It means if you want to get out, go back. It means we will not release you.” Like most asylum seekers in Indonesia, Rahimi is from the Hazara minority, which according to recent UN reports, continues to face persecution in Afghanistan.

Ghulam Ahmad, 39, who is living in Makassar, South Sulawesi, says he can never go back to Afghanistan. “UNHCR told us don’t get on a boat, we will process your case,” Ghulam says. “After six years, the only solution UNHCR can offer is to go back to Afghanistan.”

Another refugee in Makassar, a Hazara who asked not to be named for fear of persecution, says conditions are getting worse. “We have to suffer – the situation is getting worse day by day,” they said. “I think now we become a victim of the border protection policy of Australia.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 27, 2018 as "Unsettled and unwelcomed".

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Nicole Curby is a freelance audio producer.

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