What it’s really like to be a refugee


For many of us in Australia, fully understanding the trauma of the refugee experience is well beyond our grasp. Here, Afghani refugee Shams tells us exactly what it’s like.

By Shams in Batam, Indonesia

It is 4pm Batam time, Indonesia. I’m sitting at the top of a small hill around ten minutes’ walk from my accommodation.

This is an open place far from the main city, no awful vehicle sounds to disturb you; it is quiet and peaceful here.

The trees are happy and look fresh after the gentle rain that stopped an hour ago. Even in the heat of the day there are cooling breezes here. Every refugee likes to escape the monotony of their tiny, crowded and suffocatingly hot rooms and climb up to sit in a small group on this hilltop and enjoy the beautiful weather.

I’m sitting on a long fallen tree which people use as a bench, looking out at the beauty of the city and watching the ferries on the water leaving Batam for beautiful Singapore, where people live an ordinary life. Everything is on the move, the ferries, the people, the airplane above my head, but the lives of the refugees are paused, and not moving anywhere.

Living in limbo

We are not travelling. We climb up this hill to imagine the experience of freedom by looking out at the ferries and airplanes headed for Singapore. We are located just 45 minutes from Singapore by ferry. We can see the tall Singapore buildings in the distance. We can’t go there.

We are living near the border with refugee identities that exclude us from a humane life, while on the other side of the border people live with all sorts of opportunities available to them and holding one of the most famous passports in the world, that allows them to travel in every country they want.

It is awful to see and wait and wait, wondering when our time will come to travel freely and be accorded our human rights.

The government of Australia has stranded the lives of 14,000 refugees by drastically cutting resettlement of refugees registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in Indonesia. Since 5 August 2019 until now we have been protesting peacefully because of the slow rate of resettlement and requesting the government of Australia to consider the problems of stranded refugees. We ask Australia to accept more refugees from Indonesia.

What drove me to seek asylum

My name is Shams. I am a refugee from Afghanistan. I belong to a highly persecuted ethnic group called Hazara people. I was sixteen years of age when I fled my country because of constant threats I was getting against my life from Taliban in Afghanistan. To save my life I was forced out of my country to go to India then Malaysia and from Malaysia I went to Jakarta by boat to seek protection from UNHCR in Indonesia.

Before arriving in Indonesia, I Imagined I would get an opportunity to pursue my education and live a free ordinary life. My suffered spirit never experienced freedom for all the years I lived with high risk of getting murdered in the dirty hands of Taliban. I registered myself to UNHCR as an applicant and disclosed the reasons of escaping my country. In Indonesia refugees have no work rights, so I begged UNHCR to provide a home for me to live a simple free life while I wait for a country to accept me for resettlement. UNHCR refused to provide a place for me and the dream of living a free life ruined in my heart and mind.

I arrived in Indonesia in the last month of 2014 when I was only sixteen years old and I was registered with UNHCR in the beginning of 2015. I later found out that the government of Australia wouldn’t resettle those who arrived in Indonesia after July 2014. This news badly shocked and saddened me; knowing that I will never get a chance to be accepted for resettlement in Australia. However, I still hoped that in next election another Australian political party would welcome refugees with open arms.

A future unknown

The early months of 2019 – when the Liberals won the elections and formed government, and the other political parties that are best friends to refugees lost – it negatively deteriorated the mental health conditions of refugees all over Indonesia. In my own area, many refugees became disappointed. Some self-harmed and attempted suicide, and the rate of suicidal thoughts and frustration and depression among the refugees is continuously on the rise because of our foggy, dark and unclear future.

Back in 2015, due to having no right to work to cover all the costs of my living in Jakarta, I figured out that I couldn’t afford living on my own. I was told by the UNHCR officers that I can go to detention center where IOM (The International Organisation for Migration) provide the basic needs of the refugees and asylum seekers.

I was compelled to use the leftover of the little money I brought with me from Afghanistan to buy an airplane ticket and surrender myself to an Indonesian detention center. My only option was locking myself up.

On 28 February 2015, I paid a local woman and she prepared my travel documents and sent me to Manado detention center in Sulawesi. In Manado I went straightaway to the central immigration office and slept under the pouring rains and in the open space on the tiles in front of the Manado department immigration office for the whole night. I begged them to put me under the IOM care but they refused to accept me.

The next morning, I went to the office of the immigration and again I requested them to accept me. They sent me to a broken house in the second branch of the immigration office of Manado where I must wait until my turn would come to be sent to detention center for UNHCR interview. The detention centre was full of refugees at that time and there was no space for new asylum seekers. So I was compelled to live for 16 months in a very poor conditions, waiting for others to be transferred out of detention so I could take their place. I had no access to clean water, to good food and a proper clean and quiet place to sleep.

After 16 months, the immigration officers sent me to another detention center in the city of Pontianak in the western part of Kalimantan. I was locked up in Pontianak detention center, without committing any crime or conviction. I was seventeen years old.

Roadblocks and hardships

I lost the best years and my youth in the corner of the detention center. I had no access to education or even clean food. I was kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions like a caged bird banned from singing, stopped from flying in the heart of nature. Eventually I became unable to see outside of the prison to imagine being a free spirit and having an ordinary life.

During this time I had been waiting to be interviewed by UNHCR so that I could receive my refugee status.

At last in 2017 my interview with UNHCR took place. I waited another three months until UNHCR confirmed that I am a genuine refugee and then finally I was eligible to be evacuated to community housing and would receive resettlement in a third country. It was 2018 by the time I was released from detention. I was locked up as a seventeen-year-old unaccompanied minor and did not get out until I was 20 years old.

Even though we were recognised as genuine refugees by UNHCR we were still detained. The IOM, which is partially funded by the government of Australia, funds the Indonesian detention centers. IOM and immigration department were responsible for releasing the refugees to the community housing, but they kept delaying our release to keep their jobs running, which resulted in keeping us longer inside the detention center.

We had conducted many meetings with IOM and UNHCR and immigration officials requesting them to transfer us to community housing but we were repeatedly told by them that there is not enough capacity inside community housing to transfer us. Even though we knew from our friends living in community housing that there was plenty of empty space and capacity, we remained locked up and unheard in detention center.

We knew we wouldn’t be released if our voices would be suffocated and the message didn’t get out of the detention center so we started peaceful demonstration for freedom. We had protested for five days outside the detention center in front of the immigration department and we were finally released to the community housing where we have now relatively more freedom than detention centre. Our future is still unknown and we live in complete deprivation of our human rights. The human rights of refugees are violated in Indonesia for years but no one cares about it and nobody knows how many more years we have to live here before a country would offer us resettlement.

In March 2018, the government of Australia cut funding to the IOM for any refugees or asylum seekers who arrive in Indonesia after that date. This lack of funding has left big numbers of newcomers in critically dire condition in the streets of Jakarta without proper water, food and toilets and showers. It has also worsened the condition for the refugees like me who have been detained in detention center for years. I’m living under IOM care without having access to health care. There are many sick refugees living in our accommodation but they don’t get good medical treatment from IOM because IOM always states that it doesn’t have available funds to cover the costs of treatment of the refugees. We don’t have access to any English classes provided by IOM here or services that help us develop in our lives and be well prepared for a country to accept us for resettlement.

Looking forward

Since 5 August, we have been protesting peacefully against the inhumane policies that keep us stuck in Indonesia with zero rights, particularly Australian policies. We have been imploring the authorities to speed up the rate of refugee acceptance through UNHCR from Indonesia. We refugees from different countries have been kept in limbo in the denial of our most basic human rights in various Indonesian cities for seven to eight years and for some even longer.

Our hopes of resettlement offers from third potential countries, specifically from Australia, are dashed. Our only option is protesting peacefully to be heard by the world and repeatedly requesting UNHCR to take into consideration the unremitting difficulties and suffering we have experienced all these long years and take steps urgently to convince the third countries to step forward and accept the refugees stuck against their will in a destitute condition in Indonesia.

In 2013, many of my friends were caught in the Indonesian water trying to get to Australia by boat and brought by force to the Indonesian detention centers funded by the government of Australia. They were told by the UNHCR in Jakarta that they will be resettled through legal and safer way which is UNHCR.

Since then many of them were left in critical condition from lack of access to health care and inability to work, becoming physically or mentally ill in IOM accommodations while they wait in Indonesia. The government of Australia, which made a deal with Indonesia to prevent refugees from going to the water and having to accept them through UNHCR, shamelessly backed out from the commitment they made and left behind thousands of refugees in a state of relentless uncertainty about their future by reducing the rate of annual refugee acceptance via UNHCR from Indonesia. The government of Australia neither accepts the refugees through UNHCR, nor gives enough budgets for IOM to provide the basic living needs of the refugees, stranded in Indonesia while waiting for resettlement in other potential countries.

I hope the potential countries, specifically the government of Australia, step forward to resolve the refugee crisis in Indonesia and fulfill its responsibility by taking more refugees through UNHCR from Indonesia.

This article was originally published in Green Issue.

Hero image by Mikhail Esteves published under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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