A refugee couple living unsheltered on Jalan Kebon Sirih Barat 1 in Central Jakarta on Thursday (22/06). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Living in Transit: Stories of Asylum Seekers Stranded on Jakarta's Sidewalks


JUNE 23, 2017

[Updated on June 29, 2017 at 11:26 a.m.]

Jakarta. The past few days have seen people from Jakarta traveling back to their cities of origins in time for Idul Fitri, and even those who are not celebrating the occasion have set off on an extended vacation.

To some, on the other hand, having a home to go to is a distant dream.

Around 30 asylum seekers live on the sidewalks of Jalan Kebon Sirih Barat 1 in Menteng, Central Jakarta, near the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office and just meters away from where the Sarinah bombing and shootings took place last year

They fled from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia and Sri Lanka, among others. Most came from Afghanistan, on the run from the violent Taliban regime.

Facing grave dangers at home, these asylum seekers were lured by people smugglers, who promise them a better life in a third country, such as Australia — for an exorbitant fee.

The asylum seekers living rough on the streets in Kebon Sirih still have not seen their promised land. They are stuck on Jakarta's potholed sidewalks, trying to survive often with no money.

Indonesia is not party to the 1951 Convention on refugees, nor its derivative, the 1967 protocol, so the country has no obligation to provide permanent homes for asylum seekers or refugees.

Nevertheless, the country has a long tradition of being a place of transit for asylum seekers as they apply for refugee status and wait for resettlement.

Surviving in Poor Conditions

Ali Reza, a 36-year-old Afghan man who has been in Indonesia for four years, said he fled from his home country because he almost got killed by the Taliban. Ali, a former IT student dreaming to be a web designer, left Afghanistan but his family had to stay behind because they did not have enough money to pay the people smugglers.

"My parents and sisters are still in Ghazni, a city near our capital, Kabul. The highway connecting the two cities is so dangerous because it's controlled by the Taliban. It's so dangerous for our people," Ali, speaking in broken English, told the Jakarta Globe on Thursday (22/06).

Ali's father paid $10500 to a smuggler to get Ali to Australia. Ali never met the smuggler before he boarded his boat and all communication was done on the phone.

He had transited in India, Bangladesh and Malaysia before arriving illegally on a boat in Indonesia.

"When I came here in 2013, the border for Australia was open. I was thinking maybe I could come here first before I can go to Australia. But then the border was closed. I was forced to stay here. Now I'm waiting for my case to be processed and go somewhere — I don't know, maybe Australia, the US or other countries," he said.

However, after three years of living in Cisarua near Bogor in West Java under the care of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and around a year living on the streets in Kebon Sirih, he is still yet to be given a permanent home.

Ali Reza from Afghanistan holds up his UNHCR refugee card. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Ali obtained his refugee card from UNCHR in June last year. But he has not heard any other good news since then. Whenever he makes inquiries to a resettlement officer at the UNCHR office, the answer is always the same, "be patient."

"I don't know how long I should be patient, how long I can be patient. [...] I don't have any choice because I don't have any money to do anything. My family knows about my condition here but they can't do anything," he added.

Ali now lives on the sidewalks along with other asylum seekers in poor condition, forced to do all their activities — including eating and sleeping, with no roof above their heads — on the street.

"There is a baby who needs powder milk because the mother is unable to breastfeed, as she doesn't eat much," Ali said.

The asylum seekers on the streets of Kebon Sirih now rely on the generosity of locals, passersby or anyone who feels moved to help them with their everyday needs.

When they have money, they would use it for food or use the public bathroom that costs Rp 2000 (15 cents)-Rp 5000 every visit.

Sometimes they also use the facilities at the UNHCR shelter for children under 18 in Mampang, South Jakarta, to cook.

Muni, a local food tent owner who often gives the asylum seekers food or water, said donations for these unfortunate people come from all sources: neighbors, office workers and even embassy staff.

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the asylum seekers also benefit from the nearby mosque which offers free iftar dinner.

"The people here have welcomed them. We just like to remind them to keep the area clean and tidy because we are surrounded by corporate offices," she said.

Overtime, the asylum seekers also learn to speak Bahasa Indonesia by mingling with the locals.

Health Problems

Living unsheltered on the streets has exposed the asylum seekers to many illnesses. Fever, headaches and nosebleeds are nothing unusual due to prolonged exposure to cold and pollution.

Reza Bahadoiri, who has been living in and around Kebon Sirih for three years, has been prone to headaches ever since he arrived. His niece, Zahra, has suffered from frequent nosebleeds recently.

"In one day, she could get nosebleeds two or three times. The doctor [at the nearby Puskesmas, or community health center] said it would cost Rp 1.5 million to treat her. She doesn't have any money, so she's waiting for the UNHCR to provide assistance," said a refugee called Reza Hambali who was giving away some kebabs for iftar.

Zahra, left, and her uncle Reza Bahadoiri, show a letter from the Puskesmas, or community health center, that says she needs Rp 1.5 million to treat her frequent nosebleeds. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

A few of the asylum seekers could not handle the stressful life, and succumbed to self-harm, such as wrist-cutting, or mental illness.

According to Ali, the asylum seekers and refugees are forced to live in pitiful conditions because international organizations and Indonesia's Immigration Office refuse to give them financial or material aids.

"Before this, one or two years ago, there were some organizations that helped us, like IOM and CWS [Church World Service] but they no longer help us anymore. The Central Immigration Office in Jakarta also doesn't accept anymore refugees," he said.

According to an UNCHR fact sheet released in February last year, there are a total of 13,829 asylum seekers in Indonesia, 6,269 of whom have been recognized as refugees.

There is a lengthy administrative process to obtain refugee status as the asylum seekers have to undergo a series of interviews with the UNHCR. The UN body will then process the applications according to their urgency.

It can take anytime from six months to 20 months for a person to be officially recognized as a refugee.

Even then, a refugee status does not guarantee immediate resettlement because applications are prioritized for those most vulnerable and that decision is left to the governments of the third countries.

In the meantime, asylum seekers and refugees wait in shelters, but limited space has forced some to find other places to live. Those who run out of money finally end up on the streets, relying on the charity of others to survive.