JAKARTA - Afghan president Ashraf Ghani's historic two-day visit to Indonesia was largely focused on economic ties between the young democracies. Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised to build a large hospital and Islamic center in Afghanistan in addition to signing several agreements for further cooperation.
The leaders also discussed working together on deradicalization and extremism.
But there seems to have been no mention of the nearly 8,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia. Afghans, particularly ethnic Hazara, a persecuted group that is thought to be of Mongolian or Central Asian descent, make up about half of all refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia.
Many originally hoped to continue on boats to Australia, but since that country closed its maritime borders in 2014, large groups of Hazara refugees have coalesced in West Java and Sumatra.
A few days before arriving in Indonesia, President Ghani was met with large Hazara protests in Canberra, Australia's capital.
No such protest transpired in Jakarta, but several Afghan refugees and humanitarian actors expressed dismay that the subject was ignored during the state visit.
Hardline stance on emigrants
President Ghani, a Columbia University-educated development expert, has expressed little concern for Afghan citizens who leave as either migrants or refugees.
“I have no sympathy,” he told the BBC in 2016. “We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars [on people] who want to leave under the slightest pressure.” He has called on Afghans to rebuild their war-torn country, although many have pointed out that Ghani's own children live in the United States.
“He is terrible on the issue of refugees,” said Justin, a young Hazara refugee living in West Java. “He lives in an amazing castle in Afghanistan. He never can understand our lives.” “I'm sure that he will say something to Indonesia’s government like ‘please send back our people,’” said Justin, referring to Ghani’s calls for repatriation. “I guarantee that Afghanistan is absolutely unsafe for me. If I go back, I will die.”
Hazaras are a Shi’a Muslim group who live in the majority-Sunni countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are said to be of Mongol or Turkic descent, and look visibly different from other ethnic groups in those countries, which has made them an easy target for sectarian violence, most recently from the Taliban. Hazaras have lived in Afghanistan at least since the 16th century.
Ghani has included several Hazaras in his administration, including his Second Vice President, Mohammad Sarwar Danish. Ghani himself is a Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group.
But Hazaras who remain in Afghanistan are concerned about both ongoing persecution in the nation at large and stunted development in Hazara provinces. In a 2016 human rights report, the U.S. State Department wrote that “the Taliban continued to target and kidnap members of the Hazara ethnic community, executing Hazara hostages in certain instances.” And last year, the TUTAP power line, which would have improved electricity and infrastructure, was rerouted away from the Hazara-majority Bamiyan province.
Afghan diaspora in crisis
Afghan refugees, like all refugees in Indonesia, can’t work or go to school, so they lead listless lives between registering with UNHCR as refugees and eventually being resettled to a third country like the United States, which can take years if it happens at all. In the meantime, many Hazaras have set up their own, unaccredited schools and community welfare projects like the Refugee Women Support Group in Cisarua, West Java.
Resettlement prospects for refugees nearly everywhere have diminished this year, as the United States instituted a temporary moratorium on resettlement and most Western countries in Europe and Oceania decreased their annual quotas. Afghanistan was long the world’s biggest source of refugees, until Syria outpaced it in 2014 due to its ongoing civil war.
Despite huge international aid and no end in sight for American military involvement, Afghanistan has struggled to curb the Taliban insurgency. In fact, the group has reorganized after its leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur was killed in a drone strike and is embracing an assertive, coherent identity, according to the Afghan Analyst Network. This means, among other things, a likely continuance of minority persecution in Afghanistan in the near future.
Even large cities and regional capitals, which Australian government once argued were safe for Hazaras when it forcibly deported some in 2014, are insecure.
“There is no hope of life back in Afghanistan for Hazara minorities,” said Mohammad Baqir, a Hazara refugee in Jakarta who was disappointed with Ghani’s omission of refugee rights during his visit. “Day after day a new group with a different name but the same objective — to eradicate the Hazara from every corner of the world — arises in Afghanistan with no obstacles from the government. We refugees prefer this life with an uncertain future over that life with no future.”