Director of human rights at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Achsanul Habib, left, and UNHCR representative to Indonesia Thomas Vargas, in a press conference in Jakarta on Tuesday. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)

Refugees Go Home... or Wait Years for Resettlement

BY : NUR YASMIN

JULY 09, 2019

Jakarta. The United Nations Refugee Agency, or the UNHCR, will work together with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Justice and Human Rights Ministry to find a way out for refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia.  

"Refugees are in a very difficult position around the world right now. The solutions available are not suitable for everyone. Many refugees hope to be resettled and the UNHCR very diligently tries to encourage resettlement countries to accept refugees. However, some traditional countries have reduced the opportunity for refugees to be resettled in their countries," UNHCR's representative in Indonesia Thomas Vargas said in a press conference at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jakarta on Tuesday.

Dozens of refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan and Somalia, have been demonstrating in front of the UNHCR office in Central Jakarta in the past few weeks. 

"They are frustrated. Some of these refugees have been here for seven years… They want more attention. The UNHCR has been advising them to return to their [temporary] housing," Achsanul Habib, the director of human rights at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said.

Achsanul said around 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers have arrived in Indonesia by May this year.

Indonesia is not party to the UNHCR's 1951 Refugee Convention. But the government allows asylum seekers and refugees to transit in the country while they wait for their resettlement to be processed. 

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration issued a presidential decree in December 2016 which has remained the only legal framework to allow assistance for refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia.

The decree allows limited assistance for vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, unaccompanied underage children, the disabled and the elderly.

Many refugees have been left stranded in "transit countries" like Indonesia since countries party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, such as the United States and Australia, changed their policies to allow fewer immigrants.

"Today as we speak, over 70 million [people are] forcibly displaced from their homes... if all of them are put in one country it would be the twentieth largest country in the world. This is a number we have not seen since the Second World War," Achsanul said.

Thomas said the UNHCR has been trying its best to solve the refugee impasse in Indonesia, but it has not been able to make much progress since financial support is still lacking.

"Our needs far exceed the amount of money we have. In the end, handouts are not sustainable, refugees must be able to take care of themselves," Vargas said.

In 2018, the UNHCR was short $3.5 million from the total of $8.2 million needed to give adequate support for refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia.

Vargas said the UNHCR relies on funding from the international community, the government, donors and the private sector.

"We're doing our best to work with various partners, [so we can] provide assistance for the neediest among these asylum seekers," he said.

Go Home or Go Away?

Vargas admitted the resettlement process by the UNHCR is taking longer and longer after many countries who have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention started restricting immigration. 

Resettlement used to take around three years or even shorter, but now the process could take at least 10 years or even longer.

"It's up to them [the refugees] to decide if it would be better to go home or to wait for resettlement," Vargas said.

Whether refugees will be allowed to go home or not depends on a personal assessment of their safety in their country of origins. The decision to repatriate has to be taken voluntarily.

The refugee crisis has been prolonged by wars and horizontal conflicts in countries in West Asia and Africa, which have forced many to flee their homes to find safety. 

In South Asia, Bangladesh has the largest number of asylum seekers and refugees, 990,000 at last count. 

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