Aaron Bunch Journalist with Australian Associated Press | Collection of published work | + 61 484 008 119 | abunch@aap.com.au

Refugees in Indonesia may be put to work

The UNHCR wants refugees in Indonesia to be able to work for food and shelter as resettlement options dry up and international aid budgets are stretched.

April 2, 2018

Refugees in Indonesia may be put to work as the UN Refugee Agency battles a growing global humanitarian crisis, fewer resettlement options and stretched aid budgets.

The humanitarian agency has asked the Indonesian government to re-think its long-held policy of banning refugees from working so they could potentially pay their own way.

UNHCR country representative Thomas Vargas says some refugees have special skills and they could possibly trade their knowledge for food and housing.

“There are many refugees who speak English or Arabic, they could maybe provide courses in those languages and there are some who are agricultural experts, while others have special skills in the arts,” Mr Vargas told AAP.

Homeless Somalian refugee women sitting in the common area of a boarding house in Jakarta. Like many Somalian refugee women smuggled to Indonesia after Al-Shabaab militants raped them or murdered their family, they have fallen through the aid safety net and cannot legally work or access social security. They drift from one boarding house to the next where they beg other refugees for food. If they’re fortunate, they stay a few days before the landlord moves them along and when they’re not, they sleep rough in the street or on the steps of a local mosque. At night refugee women living on the street face the added danger of sexual violence. They say men regularly try to force them into sex or proposition them with offers of as little as a dollar.

Mr Vargas said the UNHCR was negotiating for some of these people to be allowed to work and support themselves but an outcome would take time.

“In a country of 250 million people and a significant unemployment rate, it’s hard politically for any government to say yes we want to provide jobs for all the foreigners who are here,” he said.

The majority of the 13,800 asylum seekers and refugees registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia are reliant on international aid for food and shelter or live in government-run immigration detention centres.

The UNHCR’s talks with the Indonesian government come as the agency deals with 65.6 million displaced people globally.

Mr Vargas said the crisis – “unlike any seen since World War II” – had stretched aid budgets and led to tougher immigration policies in key resettlement nations.

The US presidential executive order on immigration and Australia’s policy of not resettling refugees from Indonesia – if they arrived in Indonesia after mid-2014 – had created “unpredictability in the (resettlement) system” and left refugees stranded, Mr Vargas said.

“These types of policy shifts and directives have an impact on the number of refugees who can be resettled.”

Sudanese refugee Adam, 24, fled to Indonesia from the war-torn Darfur region, where he lived in tough conditions in a displaced person camp.

Recent emergencies – such as the Rohingya refugee exodus to Bangladesh – means money earmarked for the UNHCR’s operations in Indonesia is being redirected.

“When there are those types of flashpoints, that’s where the limited funding the UNHCR has globally gone to,” Mr Vargas said.

Homeless Somalian refugee Safiya doesn’t think about resettlement but would willingly work to provide food and a home for her eight-year-old daughter Sabrine.

The pair, smuggled to Indonesia following the beheading of her government-employed husband by Al-Shabaab in 2015, lives rough on Jakarta’s streets.

“In Mogadishu, there were a lot of problems we faced, but here I was dreaming it would be different and we could build our future – but now I realise our situation is worse than Somalia,” Safiya told AAP through a translator.

Homeless Somalian refugee Safiya sits with her eight-year-old daughter Sabrine in a friend’s room in Jakarta. The pair were smuggled to Indonesia following the beheading of Safiya’s government employed husband by Al-Shabaab in 2015. Like many other Somalian refugee women smuggled to Indonesia after Al-Shabaab militants raped them or murdered their family, Safiya has fallen through the aid safety net and lives on the streets.

The 28-year-old said her frequent appeals to the UNHCR for assistance had been knocked back and she was reliant on “generous local people” and other refugees for food.

“We don’t know the language and we are not permitted to work. If they allowed us to clean their toilets and to help in their houses it will be better because we would be able to survive,” she says. 

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