Somali asylum seekers gather outside a hotel in Indonesia where they were placed after Australia turned back their boat

Indonesia’s Minister for Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly has described the Australian government’s decision to stop accepting refugees from Indonesia as a “burden”, but asylum seekers and activists in Jakarta tell Crikey that the system is already broken, with asylum seekers waiting years without resources in order to be resettled.

“Australia’s new policy can be seen as a challenge for Indonesia to realise its commitment to upholding human rights that apply to everyone without exception, including the right to seek asylum as set out in section 28G (2) of the constitution,” asylum seeker advocacy group Suaka said in a release. The civil rights network has criticised Australia’s decision, saying it adds to uncertainty for asylum seekers. “This policy is clearly contrary to the international obligations of Australia as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention” said Febi Yonesta, chairperson of Suaka.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that the government would no longer accept refugees who had registered with the United Nations refugee agency after July 1 this year has been met with outrage by the Greens and the opposition, and will further drag out a process that already takes years. Suaka says the policy will affect almost 2000 asylum seekers who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia since July and will increase waiting times for those already registered.

Sunili Govinnage, an Australian lawyer who’s been volunteering to provide legal aid to asylum seekers in Indonesia since March last year, says the situation is “pretty bleak” for asylum seekers in Indonesia.

“The lack of the right to work means that people can end up destitute. The UNHCR’s implementing partner has a budget so limited that only around 300 people can access shelters, food support and healthcare. We know of families who go without meals, and over the last few months people have been self-surrendering to detention centres to try to find somewhere to stay,” she said.

One asylum seeker from Pakistan living in Indonesia told Crikey he wanted to be living in immigration detention, partly to protect himself from people smugglers, who continue to try and make money off asylum seekers. He said that he had been pressured by people smugglers and offered a place on boats that smugglers claimed would go to Australia and New Zealand. They also tried to sell him an Indonesian passport. He says that he registered with the UNHCR earlier this year, with his first interview date set for 13 months from first contact.

According to Govinnage, this is just the start of a very long process. “Ultimately, you’re talking three to five years. And that’s after refugee status determination, which can take more than two years sometimes — the average waiting period from registration to first instance interview (i.e. not decision) currently ranges from between eight and 19 months.”

Australia’s decision will have a marked effect on wait times and conditions for asylum seekers, says Govinnage. “Last year around 898 people departed, with 808 going to Australia. To the end of October there were 587 people resettled, and 401 went to Australia.”

Australian filmmaker Jolyon Hoff, based in Jakarta, is also aware of asylum seekers who are only just getting by as they wait to be resettled in another country. “To get money it’s a kind of constant process of ringing family and extended family and asking and borrowing money; on the other hand, they live cheaply. I know one guy who lives on about $80 a month.”

“They just try and wait it out. The ones that run out of money, they’ll sell their mobile phone to get enough money to make it to the Indonesian detention centres.”

Hoff is in the early stages of making a film about asylum seekers living in the town of Cisarua, where some asylum seekers have set up a school.

“They’ve set up their own school to teach their own children. It’s just remarkable. They had 50 students, now they have 70 students for four to five hours a day.”

Hoff says the students have interacted with the Australian International school in Indonesia, telling them what the situation is like in Afghanistan.

“They came to the Australian school to do a performance, they came to us as people, they did this play and they did some dancing from Afghanistan and told us a little bit about life in Afghanistan, it was just — I mean, the kids were blown away, the parents and teachers were blown away. They had so much pride with who they were and what they had to offer. I was incredibly impressed.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey