Accessibility links

Breaking News

Indonesia Faces a Wave of Refugees From Afghanistan

In the past 18 months, hundreds of asylum seekers from Afghanistan have flocked to Indonesia, in the hope of reaching neighboring Australia. But for many, the journey stops in Indonesia, which has not signed the international convention on refugees and does not grant them asylum. Those people are trapped, waiting for another country to accept them.

Refugees detained

Ali made the long and dangerous journey from Afghanistan to Indonesia alone. At age 16, he has few hopes for a bright future.

"I have lost my whole family. It only remains me," he said. "I don't feel secure because my enemies are always telling me 'I will kill you'. I don't feel secure myself. 'Til now."

Life for Afghan refugees in Indonesia is tough. They are considered illegal immigrants and put in detention centers upon arrival.

Ali Ahadi says he has spent months in the Kalideres center in Jakarta, where living conditions are grim. Few visitors are allowed at the center, so over the telephone he describes an unsafe, dirty, overcrowded facility, with inadequate food.

"That's the type of place for people who are transporting opium. Put them there. But you should not put the refugees inside a jail," he said.

About 1,300 Afghan refugees are detained throughout Indonesia, in facilities that are designed to house less than 400 people. The refugees are held until they complete the lengthy process to be recognized as asylum seekers, and then are placed under the care of the United Nations.

A life away from family

Maroloan Barinbing, the spokesman for the Indonesian immigration office, acknowledges that local authorities are overwhelmed by the recent inflow of refugees. But he says the international community should deal with this problem, because the refugees only planned to transit through Indonesia on their way to another country.

Most of the asylum seekers from Afghanistan arrived less than 18 months ago. Most say they left their country because they had no choice: it was either exile or risk being killed by one side or another in the country's war.

In one of the hostels that houses refugees, three men are busy baking a thin, round bread from Afghanistan.

Abdul Hakem, a Shia Muslim, and comes from the Azara ethnic minority, says a year and a half ago, he managed to escape from a Taliban prison, and fled Afghanistan. It was the last time he had any news from his wife and their four children. He says the situation for people like him in Afghanistan is getting worse. "I think about my family every day", he says. "It drives me crazy".

Abdul is not likely to see his family again for some time. His travels are not over: since Indonesia does not grant asylum, he is waiting for a third country to take him in. That could take years.

Ali Reza Noori arrived in Indonesia in 2001. For the past seven years he has had no income except for aid from U.N. agencies. He can not work and has limited freedom of movement. He can only wait. But now he does not regret the making the journey.

"I feel safe here. When I was in Afghanistan, I was always thinking 'What will happen to me?', you know? Actually, I've been very disappointed and also hopeless during these seven years. But I've just been accepted as a refugee, three or four months ago," he said. "And that's a hope for me to get to Australia someday, to continue my real life in there."

Ali says he does not want to imagine what his life will be like once he reaches Australia. He could not bear being disappointed again. It might still be months before he boards a plane, settles somewhere, gets a job, makes plans for the future. He is 25, and his adult life has yet to begin.