Asia-Pacific

'Forgotten victims' of Australia's border policies protest across Indonesia

Refugees protest in Jakarta. Source: Getty

Refugees from around the world who are "stranded" in Indonesia protested Australia's freeze on resettlement out of the country - a decision made by Scott Morrison in 2014.

Refugees in Indonesia who claim to be the "forgotten" victims of Australia's border protection policies held protests around the Southeast Asian nation on Tuesday.

As Australia has toughened its border protection policies over recent years, about 15,000 refugees say they are now "stranded" in Indonesia where their human rights are curtailed.

They have come from countries including Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar, Iran and Iraq, with most expecting to use Indonesia as a transit country en route to Australia. Some live in local detention centres while others are forced to live on the streets.

A number of them protested at various locations across the country including the Australian consulate at Makassar, requesting Australia revisits its policies toward them.

The protest at Makassar.
The protest at Makassar.
Supplied

"Australia's refugee policies are being hijacked by domestic political issues and refugees are being used as pawns in this greater game," reads a letter from the refugees that was presented to Australia's diplomatic officials.

"The refugees in Indonesia are the most affected, being singled out to serve as an example and a deterrent to others who are seeking refuge in Australia." 

"Indonesian officials and the UNHCR constantly tell us that our futures are in the hands of resettlement countries such as Australia, the US, New Zealand, and Canada. However, in our frequent correspondence with Canada and the US, they tell us that Indonesia is outside their zone of responsibility."

Refugees from various countries hold a rally in Jakarta.
Refugees from various countries hold a rally in Jakarta.
Getty

In 2013, Labor announced no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would be resettled in Australia.

Then in 2014, the Coalition went even further - signalling any asylum seekers who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July would not be eligible for resettlement in Australia. The move was "designed to stop people flowing into Indonesia".

At the time, then-immigration minister Scott Morrison said: "We're trying to stop people thinking that it's OK to come into Indonesia and use that as a waiting ground to get to Australia."

"It's taking the sugar off the table."

The letter claims "this decision is keeping refugees ... in a state of permanent limbo".

'An open prison'

SBS News spoke to Rohingya refugee JN Jonaid ahead of the protests. He has been in the Indonesian city of Makassar for the past six years.

Mr Jonaid said he had "no option" but to leave his home country of Myanmar in 2013 because of "genocidal actions" and widespread discrimination against his people. 

He fled to Indonesia and then tried to reach Christmas Island by boat, but was stopped by local authorities.

JN Jonaid.
JN Jonaid will attend one of the protests on Tuesday.
Supplied

"I couldn't go back to my country because my government does not accept me. If I went back to my country, they may kill me."

Without any other option, he said, he stayed in Indonesia - a country which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

"[Here], refugees can't pursue an education, our movement is restricted, we have to stay in designated accommodation, there are curfews ... it's an open prison," he said.

Mr Jonaid attended the protest in Makassar, urging the Morrison government to accept refugees from Indonesia.

JN Jonaid in Makassar.
JN Jonaid in Makassar.
Supplied

"Some [refugees] here have committed suicide and many are suffering from mental health issues ... I'm afraid things are going to get worse," he said.

Policies credited with saving lives

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs defended the decision to block asylum seekers who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after mid-2014.

"[This] serves both Indonesia and Australia's interests. This measure is designed to reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia through dangerous journeys and encourage them to seek resettlement in countries of first asylum," the spokesperson told SBS News.

And "in line with our long-standing commitment to Indonesia, Australia continues to fund the International Organization for Migration’s work to support approximately 8,500 refugees in Indonesia who registered with IOM before March 2018."

"Any person registered with UNHCR continues to be able to access information and support through IOM's Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program to depart Indonesia and return home. This program is entirely voluntary."

Refugees
Refugees are asking Australia for help.
Supplied

According to the Home Affairs Department, between 2008 and 2013, more than 50,000 people "travelled illegally to Australia on more than 800 individual boat voyages" during which time more than 1,200 people drowned.

But after Operation Sovereign Borders, "it has been more than five-and-a-half years since the last death at sea resulting from maritime people smuggling to Australia".

Legal stance

Mary Crock, a professor of public law at the University of Sydney, said the "deprioritising" of refugees in Indonesia has been a central part of Australia's border protection strategy.

"Indonesia hosted the people smugglers. Both Labor and the Coalition are desperate for it to never start up again and that's why they want to make it this difficult [for refugees]."

She said, as a result, the 15,000 people are "technically in the same predicament as any refugee in a refugee camp, but probably worse because Australia has made it very clear [they won't get in]".

But Kate Ogg, a senior lecturer at the ANU's College of Law, said Australia's standpoint towards the refugees checks out under international law.

"Australia does not have any legal obligation [to bring them to Australia] because they are in Indonesia's territory and not subject to Australia's jurisdiction," she said.

Ms Ogg said resettlement is "not considered to be a legal obligation" under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

"But just because Australia may not trigger any breaches of the refugee convention, it doesn't mean that Australia is acting as an ethical global citizen," she added.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (up to age 25). More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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