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

Refugees in Indonesia selling sex to survive

Somalian refugees fleeing war and violence are being taken by people smugglers to Indonesia where many turn to sex work to survive.

April 2, 2018

Homeless mother-of-three, Sahra, fled to Indonesia for safety after Islamists killed her family in Somalia, but with prostitution as the only way to survive, she tearily says life in Jakarta is “much harder” than in her war-torn homeland.

Indonesia has traditionally been a transit nation for asylum seekers travelling to nations such as Australia, but in recent months the UNHCR has been meeting with refugees and telling them it’s unlikely they’ll be resettled somewhere else.

That means refugees, such as Sahra, face the prospect of spending much longer in the country than they first anticipated. And for many women, it also means working as they’d never imagined – in the sex trade.

Homeless Somalian asylum seeker Sahra sits with her sick children in a fellow refugee’s room. The 32-year-old fled Somalia with her children in 2015 after Islamists stoned her younger sister to death and then turned their guns on the rest of the family, shooting Nimo in one attack. Like many other Somalian refugee women smuggled to Indonesia after Al-Shabaab militants raped them or murdered their family, Sahra has fallen through the aid safety net and lives on the streets.

Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre spokesman Daniel Webb says the suffering of refugees on Australia’s doorstep exposes the cruelty of the government’s obsession with so-called deterrence.

“The people our government secretly turns back or frightens away don’t just vanish off the face of the earth – they’re being forced to suffer elsewhere,” he told AAP.

Sahra, who was secretly working as a prostitute to provide food for her children, was recently forced into hiding after the local refugee community found out what she was doing.

Some in the conservative Muslim neighbourhood accused the 32-year-old of betraying Islam’s teachings and threatened her with violence.

“I would like to stop but I have no options,” Sahra told AAP.

“If I don’t (do it) there will be no food for my family.”

About two-thirds of the 13,800 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia are dependent on aid or live in government-run immigration detention centres, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Unfortunately, Sahra and her children have fallen through the aid safety net. And like other refugees, she cannot legally work or access social security.

Many are forced to sleep in the streets near Jakarta’s already-full immigration detention centre or queue – day after day – at the UNHCR office seeking help.

Others drift from one boarding house to the next begging for food. Some, like Sahra and her children, sleep on the steps of neighbourhood mosques.

“I could never have imagined this life before,” Sahra said. “There is no hope. I have children and I am a prostitute. This is a really bad life. It’s much harder than Somalia.”

The 32-year-old fled Somalia with her children after Islamists stoned her younger sister to death and then turned their guns on the rest of her family. She was shot during one attack.

Her 10-day journey through Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, and across the Malacca Strait, ended after a two-day bus ride to the Indonesian capital in 2015.

Her repeated appeals for help from NGOs and the UNHCR have all been refused.

During a recent interview with the refugee agency – to discuss her sex work – no assistance was offered. Instead, she was lectured about breaking local laws, and the health risks of prostitution.

UNHCR Indonesia representative Thomas Vargas says recent humanitarian emergencies – such the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh – mean money earmarked for Indonesia is being redirected.

“When there are those types of flashpoints, that’s where the limited funding the UNHCR has globally goes,” he told AAP.

The UNHCR deals with 65.6 million refugees and forcibly displaced people globally.

The crisis is unlike any seen since World War II, according to Mr Vargas. It’s stretched aid budgets and led to tougher immigration policies in key resettlement nations.

US President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and Australia’s policy of refusing refugees from Indonesia if they arrived after mid-2014 are clear examples, he said.

It’s created “unpredictability in the (resettlement) system” and left refugees stranded.

For refugees in Indonesia, it also means aid is now even harder to come by.

“You have limited funding and you have to help the neediest. That’s the harsh reality. It’s a very tough situation,” Mr Vargas said.

At night, refugee women sleeping rough on the street also face the risk of sexual violence.

Somalian refugee Yasmiin lives in a tight network of laneways near Jakarta’s central shopping district, where men regularly try to force refugee women to go with them for sex.

“When we sleep on the street, West African businessman come to this area. They threaten us and touch us and we are powerless to stop them,” she told AAP.

“If you don’t say yes they say they can beat you. But I say no, I’m a Muslim, I can’t do it. I am hungry and I want money, but I can’t do that.”

The 27-year-old, whose family was killed by a bomb in Mogadishu when she was a teenager, was abducted from the street in Mogadishu and raped by militants.

After three days locked in a room, she escaped to a local mosque where staff hid her and later helped raise the money needed to pay people smugglers to get her to Indonesia.

Yasmiin said in Somalia rape victims are often accused of being prostitutes and are sent away to avoid shaming their family or community.

The same social forces persist among refugees in Indonesia, causing some women to hide the abuse they’ve suffered for fear of being labelled a prostitute, she said.

Despite this, out of desperation, Yasmiin said she may be forced to consider working as a prostitute.

“When you don’t have food, when you don’t have shelter, life becomes very hard and that is the only option,” she said.

Homeless Somalian asylum seeker Yasmiin poses for a photograph in Jakarta. The 27-year-old, whose family was killed by a bomb in Mogadishu, fled Somalia after she was abducted, raped and held captive by militants. Like many other Somalian refugee women smuggled to Indonesia after Al-Shabaab militants raped them or murdered their family, Yasmiin has fallen through the aid safety net and lives on the street.

Mr Vargas said “survival sex” is common among refugees who don’t receive aid or have family to protect them.

“When you are not able to make a living you resort, unfortunately, to these types of survival techniques and that’s a risk refugees have here,” he said.

Immigration policies based on deterrence and criminalisation – rather than protection and human rights – came under the spotlight at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March.

UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer says government policies – rather than criminal activity, corruption and dangerous travel – are the major cause of abuses inflicted on refugees.

Refugees’ names changed.

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