A Sudanese boy cries at his makeshift tent in front of the Jakarta Immigration Detention Center in West Jakarta. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Documentary Films Offer Glimpse Into Lives of Asylum Seekers in Indonesia

JULY 19, 2018

Jakarta. As part of a series of events commemorating World Refugee Day on June 20, Goethe-Institut Jakarta held a film screening and discussion at its office in Central Jakarta on Tuesday (17/07), featuring two documentary films on the lives of refugee youths in Makassar and Jakarta, and the friendships they've built with Indonesians.

Andrianus Oetjoe’s "Respite," a heartfelt story of two young Afghan refugees in Makassar, South Sulawesi, was the first film to be screened.

The documentary follows soccer enthusiast Mostafa and his friend Yama, stuck in the port city of Makassar waiting to hear if they qualify as refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) tight restrictions.

Not permitted to work in Indonesia, the film follows the two young people as they fight against a sense of hopelessness and their tedious life at a refugee camp.


The next film was "Performing Out of Limbo" by Bethari and Indrawan that follows the story of Hamza and Alex who arrived in Indonesia after fleeing from wars in the Oromo region of Ethiopia in 2015.

Alex spent a lot of time writing songs in a music studio near where he lived in Jakarta after getting out of a refugee detention center.

Hamza joined him in the studio after a while. Both realize music can be a great stress reliever as they wait for news of their resettlement.

An unexpected encounter with students and lecturers from the Department of Sociology at University of Indonesia – who were doing a research on local youths' interaction with refugees, and guitarist Baron, one of the original members of pop rock band Gigi, led to a musical collaboration with Hamza and Alex.

They've since performed in concerts and produced songs together, building up a strong friendship between the asylum seekers and the locals.

According to the UNHCR, Indonesia now hosts more than 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees from 49 different countries, roughly half of them from Afghanistan.

They come here to seek passage to a third country such as Australia or the United States through the UN's resettlement programs.

Antje Missbach, the author of "Troubled Transit," a book on refugees and asylum seekers' plight in seeking resettlement, and a senior researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, introduced Hamza and Alex to filmmakers Bethari and Indrawan, and thus the documentary was born.

Missbach said the films screened on Tuesday offer a closer look into the lives of refugees in Indonesia and the tough challenges they're facing as they wait for resettlement – something that has gone largely unreported in the country's media.

While the UNHCR has been allowed to operate in the country since 1979, Indonesia is not party to the United Nations Convention 1951 on Refugee, leaving many refugees and asylum seekers stranded in the country with little chance to earn a living.

Those who live in cramped detention centers around the country live under strict rules, hardly allowed to do anything outside the premises.

Many of these stateless people have had to wait in limbo in Indonesia for years. Some grow up here, learn the language, make friends and fall in love with the people and the country.

However, the uncertainty of their future has led some of them into deep depression and in the worst cases, to take their own lives.

In March this year, Hayatullah, a 22-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, committed suicide in a detention center in Medan, North Sumatra.

According to Viva News, Hayatullah suffered from severe depression after receiving unfavorable news from the UNHCR.

"It can take a long time for asylum seekers to get resettlement in a new country," Missbach said. "It could take 4 to 6 years or even more. Without jobs and activities, these people are living in despair."

Most asylum seekers also have to deal with poor conditions at refugee detention centers. Many are even forced to live in makeshift tents outside the overcrowded premises.

In December 2016, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo issued a new presidential regulation  to improve the treatment of asylum seekers in Indonesia, including by refurbishing the ill-equipped detention centers.

Sadly, as these two documentary films show, life has hardly improved for most asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia.