Refugee stereotypes are not always accurate

Saturday, 15 September 2001
By Annastashya Emmanuelle
Jakarta Post

JAKARTA (JP): Being a refugee is often associated with living in poor conditions, perhaps in a makeshift tent set up in a yard somewhere, not having enough to eat and being restricted in almost every aspect in life.

These images are not always true, however.

A refugee may just as well be cruising the shopping malls or browsing the Internet in the corner of a fast-food restaurant -- something that a large number of people in this country cannot afford to do.

These refugees are foreigners who are waiting to be resettled in another country, and who spend their days frequenting the UNHCR office to check on their departure dates. Afterwards, it's back to the malls to chat with fellow countrymen and exchange grievances about the time-consuming UNHCR process.

One refugee from Iraq who has been in Indonesia for almost two years now, said his life was boring here as he had nothing to occupy his mind.

"It's like my brain has stopped working because there's not much that I can do here," he said, preferring to be called Mohammad and refusing to disclose his full name.

The 33-year-old claimed that he had worked as an engineer after graduating from Baghdad University where he studied agriculture.

Along with six other Iraqi refugees, he rents a house in the Tanah Abang area in Central Jakarta for Rp 850,000 (US$72.2) a month.

His main source of income is the monthly allowance of Rp 520,000 ($44.2) he receives from the UNHCR.

Mohammad said he brought his savings with him from Iraq and sometimes his family would send him some money.

"Financially, I'm OK ... I don't have plenty of money, but I have enough to live," he said while adjusting the handsfree device of his cellular phone.

Mohammad and his house mates entered Indonesia through Lombok, East Nusa Tenggara, after traveling by boat from Malaysia in late 1999, and immediately approached the UNHCR.

After being declared a refugee by the organization in October 2000, they moved to Jakarta.

Mohammad said he aspired to go to Australia, where he believed he could make a proper living.

"Here I feel safe. It's all right to stay here for a while, but this is not my final destination," he told The Jakarta Post.

He left his country because of what he claimed was the ongoing war and repression by his government of the Iraqi people.

"There are more and more people wanting to leave Iraq now," he added.

Another Iraqi refugee said he hated his mother country so much that he would go through just about anything to escape it.

He has also been in the country for almost two years, and is waiting for resettlement.

"I cannot, of course, stay here forever, I can't," said the trendily dressed Ameen who claimed to have produced many fine paintings.

Ameen spends his days browsing in the art galleries of Jakarta and Bandung and has come to appreciate the work of Indonesian artists.

"Although I'm constantly inspired, I'm not able to paint as much because the painting materials here are very expensive," he told the Post, adding that his only income came from the UNHCR allowance, although he sometimes received money from friends.

Indonesia has become one of the most popular springboards for those who are escaping their country's woes mainly because of its lax border controls.

Would-be refugees enter through various parts of the vast archipelago, mostly by fishing boat, and immediately seek the nearest UNHCR office to have themselves officially declared refugees.

According to UNHCR data, 2,111 illegal migrants have arrived in Indonesia since January 1999, most of whom are asylum seekers.

Thus far, 492 people have been declared to be refugees by the organization. Of that number, 415 come from Iraq. The rest are from Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine, Iran, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Vietnam, Bahrain, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"It is possible that they are just using Indonesia as a transit point because this is not their final destination," said the spokeswoman for the UNHCR Jakarta office, Kemala Ahwil.

A person may be declared a refugee if he is currently outside of his country, and is unwilling to return for fear of persecution based on his beliefs, race or ethnicity, Kemala explained.

Yet the process of declaring someone a refugee is an arduous one as the UNHCR conducts several investigations and interviews, all of which can take months before the attestation letter is finally issued.

Before resettling the refugees, the UNHCR must wait for the approval of the designated countries, which can take years.

While awaiting for this proses to be concluded, the refugees are given an allowance of Rp 520,000 per month for every family head, while his wife and children receive Rp 260,000 each, up to a maximum of four persons.

The question of illegal migrants is becoming a growing problem for the government as the immigration authorities do not have sufficient resources to tackle the matter.

"They are bothersome to the government and the public. We will therefore constantly try to keep them out of Indonesia or to repatriate them," said Ade Dahlan, a spokesman for the director general of immigration.

"We have intensified the checks at every immigration checkpoint, such as the airports and harbors ... but it is difficult for us to control those who enter Indonesia through other gateways," he added.

Meanwhile, in order to make the refugees' lives more productive, the Bangun Mitra Sejati organization, which is an executive partner of the UNHCR, is conducting the "Refugee to Refugee" program, where the refugees can partake of activities such as English and computer classes, and attend classes on reproductive health.

"Our intention is not to make them feel comfortable here. We are just trying to fill in their days with positive activities," said Petrus Ponco Waluyo, the project manager of the organization.


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