'We are in danger'

Refugees, 'extreme vetting' and travel bans

Many fled violence, losing family or friends. Now they’re stuck in Indonesia, dreaming of a rare ticket to Australia, New Zealand or the US even looking up to Donald Trump. But the political reality means prospects are grim. And Indonesia itself is debating their future.

By Deborah Cassrels
10 July 2017
Reading time: 23 minutes

THE DEADPAN EXPRESSION, the opaque eyes sketch the darkness of a child’s trauma. Shukriya Alizada, an ethnic-minority Hazara girl, was 12 when Sunni Taliban fundamentalists killed her father.

Now 15, Shukriya, who is from the restive terrorist stronghold of Ghazni in southern Afghanistan, recalls bleakly: “The Taliban killed my father because he worked for the government.“

Having fled sectarian violence and persecution with her mother and sister two and half years ago, she survives in Indonesia on her grandparents’ largesse.
Ensconced at a Jakarta refugee learning centre called Roshan, several other Shia Hazara girls and about 30 teenage boys divulge eerily similar tales: most of their fathers were killed by militants in bomb or gun attacks, or went missing.

Victims of generational persecution, ethnic Hazara Shia Muslims of Afghan origin are targeted by Sunni-aligned Taliban insurgents and other extremists over their religious and ethnic roots. They are easily identifiable by their central Asian facial features.

They now comprise half of Indonesia’s 14,500 refugees and asylum seekers waiting for resettlement, but prospects are diminishing as the doors to Western countries increasingly slam shut.

In April, Australian Hazaras protested the Canberra visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, demanding the two countries review a 2011 deal to deport failed Afghan asylum seekers. They argue Ghani has left them at the mercy of the Taliban – which has made a deadly resurgence since 2001 when it was driven out – and other anti-Shia militants.

At the learning centre, Ghafoor Haidari blandly recounts how his 18-year-old Afghan brother was murdered, his father kidnapped. At 16, he lives in an NGO-run shelter for unaccompanied children. His nagging concern is that he will be kicked out in a couple of years when he reaches adulthood, and become homeless. There’s no hint of cautious optimism he may be resettled by then.

His friend, Nemat Salimi, 19, sitting beside him, describes how, as an adolescent, he was forced into construction work to support his family after his father also became a victim of Taliban terror.

Many students are among the 637 unaccompanied and separated children living precariously in and out of Indonesian detention centres and shelters. Some are orphans, others were sent by parents fearing child recruitment by the Taliban, or the fatal consequences if they refused.
All, with truncated or no education, paid people smugglers on a well-worn boat route from Malaysia.

One girl travelled alone to Indonesia rather than acquiesce to an odious marriage demand and, as memories flood back, another breaks down, rushing from the classroom.

While older refugees readily self-diagnose PTSD, battle-scarred teenagers avoid articulating their debilitating depression. But the salve of a school routine provides a focus in which to aspire to a brighter, if uncertain, future.

Roshan (“Bright” in Farsi, the unifying language), the only refugee learning centre in Jakarta, is a beacon to the 90 students ranging from pre-schoolers to adults, largely ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Partner support from the prestigious Jakarta Intercultural School has elevated morale. English, at the core of the Cambridge international curriculum, prepares students for resettlement.

”If you only depend on resettlement, you’re not going to find solutions for most refugees.”

But it’s a lottery. While refugees worry that protracted waits may be interminable, many are living hand to mouth because they are not permitted to work. Last year, about 788 people in dire need requested shelter in detention and over the past three years, 4000 have approached for support.

As the global refugee crisis blows out from the conflict-ridden Middle East and Africa, and western countries tighten their borders, resettlement prospects appear like a distant dream. Especially considering the odds: less than 1 per cent of the global refugee population is resettled.

“No-one should expect they are going to be automatically resettled, especially now when we find ourselves in this kind of global refugee crisis,” says Indonesia’s representative to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Thomas Vargas.
”If you only depend on resettlement, you’re not going to find solutions for most refugees.”

The grim prospects are reflected in the data: Australia accepted nine refugees from Indonesia in April, the US just two. Canada last year resettled 95, while 17 went to New Zealand and 790 to the US.

Asylum seekers who arrived in Indonesia after mid-2014 are no longer eligible for Australian resettlement. While the Coalition’s humanitarian intake has decreased from 20,000 to 13,750, it will increase over the next few years. But an additional quota of 12,000 refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq has been filled.

US President Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” plan, purportedly to weed out terrorists, has rendered refugees static. It is suspending citizens from six Muslim-majority countries, with a four-month hold on allowing refugees entry. Even though the executive order spent some time in judicial limbo, the annual US quota for refugees in Indonesia has already plunged from 110,000 to 50,000.

And so, Indonesia is strategising new centralised options to manage its 14,500 guests stuck in transit – some since 2000. Plans range from new detention centres to a revived, contentious proposal of a remote island. Nothing has been decided, officials concede.

In the meantime, migrants are glad to repel unremitting boredom in learning centres that extend beyond the capital.

Four centres in the cooler, hilly region of Cisarua-Bogor, west Java, are meeting massive demand from adults and many of the 3768 UN-registered children. Waiting lists are long.

But like Roshan, a church-funded NGO (non-governmental organisation), they are not certified, leaving students without school validation when they resettle.
Roshan’s US co-founder and executive director, Heather Tomlinson, opened the centre a couple of years ago with a friend after discovering through their Jakarta church community gaping educational and social holes among Farsi-speaking refugees. Some had never attended school.

The challenges, set against diverse, often incompatible backgrounds and traumatic histories, are enormous.

“They don’t have any control of anything, whether they’ll become a refugee, what country they’ll go to, what their future will look like. The combination of traumatic experiences, lack of social support and no productive activity, is a recipe for mental illness, and slipping further and further behind, to atrophy.”

“I want to reveal the pain of my nation. I want to express the challenges facing the Afghanistan people.”

A large, nondescript house with five classrooms, Roshan sits behind heavy iron gates in a narrow street. For security reasons, it displays no sign but refugees know it as a landmark providing stability and social cohesion.

Sitting in a semicircle, the group of 14 to 20-year-old students, initially shy, first find their voices in “safer” dialogue.

Their leading question: “When will I be resettled?” Eyes lock onto me. I am apparently the conduit to their deliverance. Their preference is Australia, which resettled a modest 363 refugees last year. “We want a good job and income,” they say, despite knowing the poor odds. They aspire to be doctors, engineers, psychologists, among other lofty ideals. One wants to be a businessman like Donald Trump, “because he is successful”.

The conversation swings back to fears and anxieties. “I worry about the future. I am afraid I will be too old to go to university,” says Aman Haidari, 19, from Afghanistan.

Buffeted from place to place after six months in detention, he shares a kost (basic room) with a friend and relies on drip-fed funds from home. He doesn’t know what he will do when they stop, but destitute migrants commonly sleep rough outside Jakarta’s UNHCR building. It’s not what he envisaged when he set out for a new life.

Hazara asylum seeker Behishteh Alizada, 18, is among the handful of female students defying cultural taboos from their home countries that forbid mixing with boys.

Feisty and charismatic, she is imbued with an education ethic, perhaps garnered from her teacher mother.

“’If not for the classes, I would be sitting at home until maybe I am sick,” she says. “Every day you come, you are learning.”

Her burning ambition is to be a rap singer and bring her people’s plight to world attention: “I want to reveal the pain of my nation. I want to express the challenges facing the Afghanistan people.”

The pain is written on her mother’s face. Hanifa, 43, a volunteer manager at Roshan, took flight from Kabul, northern Afghanistan, with her family 18 months ago. She also has three sons. The eldest, Elias, 21, escaped to Australia by boat five years ago after death threats. Hanifa’s husband had been kidnapped by militants demanding a $US1 million ransom.

“I searched for my husband for two years. They were going to kill Elias,” she says, tears flowing. Elias, now in Melbourne, was granted a permanent protection visa and supports the family with part-time work between IT studies. Hanifa is desperate to join him but Elias’s arrival by boat gives the family reunion application the lowest priority, unless he becomes a citizen.

Students and teachers at the Refugee Learning Centre in south Jakarta - the only such centre in Jakarta. Second from left is US co-founder and executive director, Heather Tomlinson. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

UNDER THE AUSTRALIAN-FUNDED International Organisation for Migration’s voluntary assistance returns, 157 migrants returned home since the start of the year. Not many, admits Vargas.

The flow continues: 65 asylum seekers were intercepted in Indonesia in the same period, according to Indonesia’s Immigration Office.

“With wars continuing … the international community is going to have to start promoting peace if they want to stop refugees. They can’t expect people are going to sit there and die,” Vargas says, exasperated.

In response to record numbers – 4000 fewer people sought asylum three years ago – Indonesia plans to build countrywide detention centres or shelters to bring refugees under government control, Immigration Office spokesman Agung Sampurno says.

“We are looking at separating women and children. I don’t know about the husbands. There are so many children and they need … schooling,” he told SBS.
He envisages Indonesian teachers providing classes, and Australia funding the centres.

“We don’t have the budget. We are worried refugees will be stuck here for a long time. Who knows how long?”

Underscoring the overburdened services, 34 percent of migrants languish in temporary immigration-run shelters because the 13 Australian-maintained detention centres, sheltering 4344, are overcapacity. They include 108 unaccompanied and separated children, according to the UNHCR.

About 6600 refugees and asylum seekers are in IOM-supported community housing while the Ministry of Social Affairs has provided some shelters normally allocated for Indonesian street children.

“Refugees should be under our control so we know their movements, “ Sampurno says.

Concern is increasing over Shi’ite and Christian refugees living in the community. A mayoral edict to deport Afghan Shia refugees in East Kalimantan in 2015 was echoed in February by Islamic activists urging supervision “in the surrounding environment from the spread of Shiite heresy”.

Following Jakarta’s elections in April, after which the Christian, ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was ousted and jailed in May for blasphemy, there is disquiet that the so-called moderate majority-Muslim nation is strategizing sectarian populism amid escalating Islamic extremism. The anti-Ahok campaign – mounted by hardliners the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and pro-caliphate organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir - has changed the tolerant face of the nation, says Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch researcher.

Concedes Roshan’s Heather Tomlinson of the climate: “We worry about the government or even neighbours deciding they don't like us doing this (running a refugee centre), the hardline religious groups who hold violent rallies, and about the visa problems for (refugee) volunteers.” During large demonstrations the centre closes to ensure refugees’ safety.

“The option is still on the table to isolate refugees and asylum seekers on an unnamed island.”

In 2013, vehement local conflicts and jealousies flared over refugees living in Bogor, west Java, prompting the IOM to close its housing following a week-long lockdown after some refugees were beaten.

“There are some problems with those who live among the community, that’s why the option to build shelters is on the table, “ says the Director for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dicky Komar.

The other is the resurrected alternative to settle all refugees and asylum seekers on an isolated island, he says.

That plan has been denied by Sampurno.

Twenty years after the closure of Galang Island, a UN internment camp for processing Indochinese refugees in Indonesia’s Riau Islands, Komar stresses the option remains.

“The option is still on the table to isolate refugees and asylum seekers on an unnamed island,” Komar says. “We haven’t reached a decision on it yet. But we refer to Galang Island during the 70s sheltering the Vietnamese refugees.”

Galang, known as a refugee hell where hundreds died in shocking conditions, processed boatpeople for resettlement after the Vietnam War between 1979 and 1996.

The proposal was put to President Joko Widodo by Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly in 2014, on the heels of Australia’s ban on asylum seekers arriving after mid-2014.

Laoly did not respond to several requests for an interview and the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Retro Marsudi, referred questions back to Komar.
Thomas Vargas, though unaware of the island proposal, said the UNHCR would not support any such plan.

“Australia has paid them collectively hundreds of millions of dollars to violate the refugee convention and human rights.”

“Past experience recently by other countries shows that using an island as holding facility for refugees poses serious social and human rights issues. For instance, the establishment of holding centres (by Australia) on Manus Island and in Nauru.

“The UNHCR would not support initiatives by any governments to move refugees to holding facilities. It is a basic human right that people have freedom of movement, including refugees.”

He points out costs for such island facilities have proven to be very high.
Similarly, refugee activist Ian Rintoul rejected the island plan as anathema to the idea of human rights and urges Australia to open its doors.

“Australia spends billions on offshore processing that could be spent on resettling refugees in Australia.

“It has drawn many regional countries into brutalising asylum seekers and refugees; Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia are also victims of Australia's offshore processing regime.

“Australia has paid them collectively hundreds of millions of dollars to violate the refugee convention and human rights,” Rintoul said.

Principal of Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, Liaquat Ali Changezi, right, with teachers Sakina 16, (striped dress), Humaira, 17, (turquoise hijab), Sadiqa, 20.

“WE ARE JUST numbers and cases. We are no-one,” despairs Mohammed Bagherian, 39, a Christian Iranian refugee, who with wife Shirin, 38, and son Ahoura, 9, were religiously persecuted over their Christian faith and fled Iran seven years ago.

The tertiary-educated couple were granted refugee status in Jakarta three years ago but were rejected for Australian resettlement in 2015.

They spout the commonly held belief they have been vanquished by a faceless, inadequately resourced UN system.

The Bagherians run church services and weekly radio broadcasts to refugees and asylum seekers in Darwin and south-east Asia.

But their voluntary support recently attracted threats from Iranian officials unappreciative of their church work.

Harbouring fresh fears for their safety, the couple were explicitly told to stop converting Iranian Muslims to Christianity.

As if that didn’t spook him, Mohammad says two hardliners from the Islamic Defenders Front recently drew up on a motorbike outside his church. They thrust their fingers at him, spitting venom and warning against bringing Muslims to church.

“They knew my name. We are powerless, they can harm us. How can we be safe in Indonesia?” he asks.

Hanifa Alizada encapsulates the desperation.

“Why are countries closing their doors to refugees? We are in danger. How long can we bear this situation?”

The refrain was aired in February when asylum protests erupted outside the UNHCR in Jakarta. Despite their tenuous situations, such behaviour does little to further their cause.

“They are guests in our country so they need to adhere to the national laws and regulations and we need to push the UNCHR to speed up the process,” says Dicky Komar.

Processing by the UNHCR to refugee status takes about three years, but with governments tamping down humanitarian assistance, the inadequately-resourced agency is in an invidious position.

“They knew my name. We are powerless, they can harm us. How can we be safe in Indonesia?”

On December 31, 2016, a presidential decree enacted by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo brought refugees’ human rights into a legal framework for the first time. As a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Indonesia has now filled a legal void, but it’s just a start.

The decree’s redeeming feature stipulates that asylum seekers in distress in Indonesian waters are rescued and brought ashore. It also allows asylum seekers temporary residence and refugees, who were denied official status granted under processing by the UNHCR, to be recognised.

The decree has also highlighted gaps.

Febi Yonesta, chair of the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection, SUAKA, laments that “no form of local integration is regulated by the decree” and is pushing for a mandate on refugee work rights, education and healthcare.

“Work is a human right, “ he says. “Most refugees don’t have any future in Indonesia. The best we can do is promote their welfare and treatment in the waiting period.”

Vargas, commending Indonesia for its generosity as a host country, does not suggest work rights, as such, but livelihood opportunities for refugees to support themselves and benefit locals.

The UNHCR was also exploring allowing refugees legal status to dispel deportation fears.

Anxiety over possible random detainment continues to haunt refugees following complaints of unorthodox practices a couple of years ago when the spike in boat arrivals to Australia halted.

“Lots of refugees were getting detained and locked up for bribe money between the end of 2014 and early 2015. It was in reaction to the fact the smuggling boats had stopped going to Australia,” said a source who declined to be named.

“[Indonesian] immigration officials were getting a cut of money from those boats. Then that revenue stopped. There is a theory those same officials started going directly to the source – the refugees, who had UNHCR cards and papers but no one to defend them.

“In one case, the week a family was to be resettled in Australia, immigration officials came knocking on their door; it was like a scene out of a bad movie. They put a hand over one man’s mouth, saying ‘silence, silence, don’t make a sound’.

“I knew people who were put in detention or raided – their doors were broken down by Immigration. Usually it (the bribe) started at 10 million rupiah (about $A1000) and it would work down. The refugees didn’t have the money, but some were desperate and they asked families to wire money. It ended up at 5 or 3 million rupiah – whatever they could get their hands on.”

The decree has not protected refugees from being detained, says an Iranian refugee who recently paid the equivalent of $30 and escaped a second incident.

Hazara primary school students at Roshan learning centre. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

DEEP FRUSTRATION OVER work bans, particularly among demoralised young men in their prime, is endemic.

When I meet a buff-looking Iranian in a church hall with other refugees, his method to deflect his demons becomes apparent.

Hossein Afzali, 29, a dentistry graduate, describes an all-day gym work-out to channel his testosterone-fuelled energy.

“There’s nothing else to do. They [the UNHCR] say be patient, wait for process. I am going crazy, I want a life. I don’t want to feel useless, I want to work. We are not animals. “

In the normal scheme of things, he would have a girlfriend. “How can I ask a girl out? I can’t even pay for a meal.”

In 2013, Afzali and his father, persecuted for their Christian faith, tried to reach Darwin by boat with 42 others, but turned back after they exhausted water supplies and were stranded for two days.

They had paid a people smuggler $US1200, but found their way back to Indonesia’s eastern island of Sumba, after which they were detained in Kupang, west Timor for a year.

Living with six young men in a stifling kost, Afzali chooses independence over IOM-supervised free housing. He is 29, after all.

Hossein Afzali: "I am going crazy. I want a life."

Hossein Afzali: "I am going crazy. I want a life."

Says Vargas: “Stay measures have to be implemented by host countries so refugees can at least support themselves while here.”

Ian Rintoul agrees but contends it’s not the answer: “Asylum seekers should have the right to work, with access to education and health care in Indonesia, but Australia's ban must be lifted so that refugees have a durable solution and are not condemned to indefinite limbo in Indonesia. ”

Yonesta is disdainful of what he views as Australia’s indifference to its obligations as a signatory to the refugee convention – including mandatory offshore detention and its boat towback policy.

Since the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013 until March last year, 25 boats have been turned back, most to Indonesia, earning broad condemnation from Indonesian officials and human rights groups.

“There is Australian hypocrisy with regard to refugees,” says Yonesta. “Indonesia always thought refugees would be here temporarily – they never thought it would be part of a durable solution, so it was never prepared.

“Because of the changing global trend, it is so easy for the Indonesian government to reject the idea of adopting the refugee convention when they look at the Australian trend against refugees, the US trend. Indonesia thinks ‘Why would we adopt it? Look at the countries that have signed – they do not uphold their obligations’.”

It’s unclear how Indonesia’s plans to separate refugee communities will evolve. Since IOM housing closed in west Java in 2013, life has been tough, but communities band together.

Concentrated clusters share tiny, bare houses and rooms, surviving as best they can, some selling their native flatbread, yoghurt and feta cheese derived from cheap ingredients. Meagre belongings are shared and support from home is sporadic.

One refugee family which slept rough outside Jakarta’s UNHCR for months begging for help moved to a spartan kost after Tasmanian Jeanette Hurse noticed their plight on Facebook and provided support.

Inviting me into their spotless, furniture-free kost, they serve me aromatic Persian tea and homemade treats with quiet dignity.

“We have nothing,” mutters Masuma Yasufi, 24, a minority Sadat Shia woman married to Aziz Hussaini, 29, an ethnic Hazara. She is not grumbling. Rather, she appears embarrassed.

Their bathroom doubles as washing-up space; plates on racks nudge the ceiling, pots and pans hang beside the toilet. Along with richly-hued Persian carpets and cooking utensils, recycled from resettled refugees, they are the only concessions to their austere lives.

At least they are not on the street.

When Jeanette Hurse read Aziz’s post, her heart broke. “He (Aziz) had escaped persecution with the hope of something for the future and now his situation seemed even more hopeless.

“I sent a PM [private message] to Aziz … He is eternally grateful for my small regular contributions, but the joy this extraordinary warrior brings into my life surpasses even his own appreciation.”

Inviting me into their spotless, furniture-free kost, they serve me aromatic Persian tea and homemade treats with quiet dignity.

It is unclear how many refugees live in Bogor, based on transient existences between Jakarta, but the UNHCR calculates 6500 reside in Jakarta and surrounding areas.

Aziz’s family crossed to Pekanbaru, central Sumatra, by boat from Malaysia in 2014 with their son Murtaza, now 6, after the Taliban forced them to flee to Iran where they were illegal immigrants.

In the Hazara diaspora, scores have escaped to Iranian borders where they eke out existences, stateless and exploited by corrupt authorities and marauding gangs seizing illegal taxes and fees.

Aziz and Musuma had lived in Bamyan province, the ancestral home of the ethnic Hazara people in central Afghanistan, where about 1000 Hazaras hide out in caves from the Taliban. The picturesque region – encompassing the old Silk Road – which has no government electricity and little infrastructure, is dependent on generators and solar power. Last year, the Ghani administration rerouted a major electricity project away from Bamyan, dashing development prospects and instigating protests accusing the government of discrimination.

Aziz and Musuma’s marriage, a mixing of two tribes, is taboo. Aziz says he would be killed were he to return.

“They (the Taliban) regard Hazaras as infidels. Killing Shia Hazaras is considered honourable and religiously justified.”

The now live a few doors from the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, which their son attends. The first centre to open in 2014, it still operates from a large rented house under Pakistani co-founder and principal Liaquat Ali Changezi.

In a stroke of good luck, Changezi and his family were recently accepted for resettlement in New Zealand, he tells me, smiling. Indeed, they are among the fortunate few. New Zealand accepted three refugees in March and none in February.

Changezi, 50, wears several hats – or rather, he did. In Quetta, he was a famous TV actor, news, documentary and drama producer and started his own production house in 2003.

He was also on a hit list.

It was 2008 and terrorists in Balochistan, Pakistan, were targeting high-profile Hazaras in arbitrary executions amid daily massacres in the enclave of Hazara Town.

“I had friends who were gunned down, point blank, in the street by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi [an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group],” Changezi says.

One was the Hazara Democratic Party chairman Hussain Ali Yousufi, who was assassinated in 2009. Another, Pakistan's three-time Olympic boxer Abrar Hussain Hazara, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in 2011 in Quetta.

“The fees were very high so, I thought ‘why not open our own centre? We have good teachers.’”

Changezi did not hang around after receiving death threats on the phone. Until then, he had worked from home. He fled Quetta, leaving his wife, two daughters and two sons in a secure house, to work in Kabul, Afghanistan. When he returned to Quetta in 2013, he found a genocide of monumental proportions.

“In one year they killed more than 1000 people. I decided there was no space for me.

“It is still happening; it is not safe to go outside Hazara Town or Alamdar Road” – a government police force-patrolled area where his family lived.

“You cannot go out to your business or to buy food at the bazaar. Wherever the Taliban get a chance they will kill – by suicide bombings, on buses, executions.”
Paying $36,000 to people smugglers for the family’s escape, they landed covertly by boat in the Sumatran jungle in 2014 from Malaysia, and flew to Jakarta.

Months later, intent on pursuing his children’s education, Changezi and three friends established the learning centre, marshalling the tightknit refugee community. He had sought local schooling, but found language and fee barriers insurmountable.

Refugee children can access Indonesian public schools, but few do. Besides those barriers, many parents say schools frequently request residential permits. Only 10 per cent were enrolled in 2015.

“The fees were very high so, I thought ‘why not open our own centre? We have good teachers’,” Changezi says.

Funded by the community, the centre has expanded to 300 students and from three teachers to 50 since its inception. They include his two self-taught daughters, one of whom, Madiha Ali, 17, has written two books in her downtime: a memoir of her journey from Pakistan, and a novel. “I want to be an author,” she tells me, seriously.

Says Changezi: “When we started the learning centre, everyone was scared. They said maybe the UNHCR and the government will stop you. I told them education wasn’t a crime.”

It remains to be seen whether the centre will survive Indonesia’s initiatives, but Changezi’s lieutenants are ready to take the reins when he leaves.

What will he do in New Zealand? “The same work, entertainment media – I would love to do that, and go to the cricket,“ he grins.

A protest in central Jakarta by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

IT'S FRIDAY AFTERNOON. News day. Asylum seekers and refugees mingle in the back alley of the UNHCR. Each hopes for a breakthrough – an interview, a refugee status card or a coveted resettlement acceptance.

A Syrian woman, Hanadi Alhariri, 46, with her daughter Hilda, 18, and son Mohammad, 17, tells me they have been accepted to Australia. They are waiting for travel dates via an anonymous text message. There is no indication of when that will happen. It could be many months, or never, as in the cases of some who have been promised resettlement in the US.

Suddenly, the heavy gate swings open and their names are called. They rush through, nervously.

A group of loitering young Somalian men tell me their stories. Each fled war, arriving in Indonesia alone and each story, filled with hope for a better life, is painfully similar. An 18-year-old Somalian girl joins them. She is waiting for refugee status. They all want to go to Australia. ”We heard it is a rich country with a good life and job opportunities.”

In a parallel narrow gang [alley], fetid overpowering smells converge from open sewers flowing between tiny local houses and outdoor cooking, where hanging laundry and roaring motorbikes vie for space.

The refugees are indifferent. But the snapshot of the raucous, tough lives of some of Indonesia’s heaving 250 million people is a judicious reminder of the scale of the overburdened host country.