Many asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Congo, Turkey and Sri Lanka live in Jakarta's immigration detention center. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Asylum Seekers, Refugees Stranded in Indonesia's Immigration Detention Centers


JANUARY 26, 2018

Jakarta. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, by the middle of last year more than 65.5 million people around the world have been forced to leave their home to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.

Some of them are now stranded in Indonesia and have been sheltering at immigration detention centers, in prisons opened up by the authorities or forced to sleep it rough out on the streets.

The UNHCR office in Jakarta calculated there are now more than 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees from 54 countries stranded in Indonesia, waiting for the agency to help them find asylum in other countries.

Indonesia is not party to the United Nations Convention 1951 on Refugee, but the UNHCR has been allowed to operate in the country since 1979, during the height of the Vietnamese boat people crisis.


Even though asylum seekers and refugees can transit in Indonesia, they are not allowed to work due to immigration rules.

It can take a long time for asylum seekers to get resettlement in a new country once they have registered with the local UNHCR office — the fastest is four years according to the agency's records — and many of them succumb to the harsh conditions of living in transit.

Some asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia have now sought shelter at immigration detention centers, including one in Kalideres in the west of the capital Jakarta.

These immigration detention centers are meant for foreign nationals who violate Indonesia's immigration laws.

Nevertheless, the centers have opened their doors to asylum seekers and refugees, but they are fast running out of space.

The detention center in Kalideres, with a maximum capacity of 120 people, currently houses 155 asylum seekers, 69 refugees and a handful of foreigners who had overstayed their visa.

A 25-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan, Faridullah Zazai, told the Jakarta Globe that he and his friends wanted to go to the detention center "to get a better shelter."

The Kalideres immigration detention center has so far refused their repeated requests to be allowed in.

"The immigration detention center is created as a temporary shelter for foreign nationals who break our immigration rules, not to accommodate asylum seekers or refugees," said Morina, the head of the Jakarta Immigration Detention Center, on Jan. 9.

"Immigration detention centers are for foreign nationals who violate immigration rules — overstaying, having no passport or visa or misusing their visa," said Agung Sampurno, a spokesman from the immigration directorate general at the Justice and Human Rights Ministry.

Since early January, around 50 people, including children, from Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia have been forced to live on the roadside in front of the Kalideres detention center, after it ran out of space for more refugees.

Cramped Living Space

Even if they finally find shelter inside a detention center, these asylum seekers still have to deal with a cramped living space and lack of facilities.

Agung said since the shelters are formally detention centers, they have cells instead of proper rooms.

They are not equipped to house pregnant women, children or senior citizens, he said.

Siham Ahmad, a 25-year-old Somalian woman, said she still prefers to stay inside her tiny cell instead of letting her two-year-old son Ahmed Awes sleep out on the street.

The Kalideres detention center now puts the asylum seekers and refugees on the second floor of the building, living in narrow cells separated by a small corridor strewn with dirty clothes, food and rubbish.

18-year-old Sumaiya Hassani and her brother, 10-year-old Enayat Hassani, live in one of these cells with their mother and uncle. They sleep on thin mattresses to protect them from the cold floor.

"It's uncomfortable, but I prefer it here, even if it's very small," said Sumaiya, who is originally from Paktia in Afghanistan.

Sometimes, couples hang a sarong in the middle of the cell to create a private space, said Achmad, the head of security at the center.

Government Help

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo issued a new presidential regulation on the handling of asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia in December 2016.

The regulation urges provincial administrations across Indonesia to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees while they wait for their resettlement requests to be processed by the UNHCR.

Unfortunately, the recommendation has so far been quietly ignored.

"The Immigration Office has asked for help from regional governments [to provide the temporary accommodation], but the response has been less than enthusiastic," Morina said.

Writing by Telly Nathalia