In an archipelago with more islands than refugees, Indonesia is looking at ways to provide education, health and housing to its 13,800 registered refugees and asylum seekers. But advocates argue accessing livelihoods is the biggest unmet need.
MEDAN, Indonesia – Muhammad Rofiq uses his mobile phone to log into his resettlement case file online, outside of the shelter in Medan where he’s lived since 2016.
A status update told him he should expect to leave Indonesia for the U.S. this month.
“I will finally go to America,” said Rofiq, a Rohingya refugee among the 1,807 rescued by fishermen off the coast of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, in 2015.
Rofiq, 24, is one of an unspecified number of Rohingya refugees selected for resettlement to the U.S. under an agreement made with Indonesia during the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis.
Indonesia committed to host the Rohingya for one year at refugee shelters set up and run by the International Organization for Migration. Almost three years later and many remain in Indonesia uncertain what will come next.
Rofiq was expecting to leave Indonesia last August when President Trump’s 120-day refugee ban cancelled his plan. He’s hoping restrictive policies won’t affect his upcoming departure.
The U.S. government cut its quota for resettlement with the UN Refugee Agency by half this fiscal year. Experts argue the U.S. may not even reach this 45,000 limit by September.
This may delay many Rohingya in Medan waiting to leave Indonesia for the U.S.
“Some have been in the resettlement pipeline, but now that’s all been thrown out by these restrictive policies governments are implementing,” said Thomas Vargas, UNHCR Indonesia Representative.
In Medan and Makassar – two cities sheltering the majority of the 800 Rohingya refugees in Indonesia – some are waiting for final approval to resettle in the U.S. while the majority must remain indefinitely.
The IOM runs 18 refugee shelters in Medan and 12 in Makassar, housing the majority of Rohingyas in Indonesia.
Last February, all refugees in Indonesia were informed by the UNHCR that resettlement is no longer an option. Indonesia hosts 13,800 registered refugees and asylum seekers.
“Resettlement is not a catch all solution. It’s really, especially these days, a band-aid approach to helping refugees,” Vargas said. “Unfortunately, it’s become even more difficult with this kind of situation and environment that we’ve got globally.”
Last February, Rofiq confirms 20 Rohingyas from his refugee shelter in Medan left for the U.S. Twenty-nine there are expecting to leave in the coming weeks.
“It makes me sad when I think how many have already left and I’m still here,” Rofiq said.
Two Rohingya men who had arrived in Indonesia before 2015 cried when they received the news from the UNHCR that they must remain in Indonesia with no hope of being resettled to another country.
They have spent years living at refugee shelters in Medan with their families but were not considered for resettlement to the U.S. because both left temporarily to find work in Malaysia.
Refugees in Makassar protested outside of the UNHCR office when they received the news that those not already selected for resettlement would have to remain indefinitely.
Indonesia does not allow permanent residency for refugees and asylum seekers. Even refugees who’ve married Indonesians and have had children are still not allowed to remain, officially.
In Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, many refugees who were living independently, without assistance, are now sleeping outside of an immigration detention centre hoping to be allowed inside.
Indonesia’s president decreed in 2017 that more refugee shelters must be set up to accommodate them. This has caused confusion in the refugee community with many turning up at immigration detention centres hoping to be processed and allocated housing.
The International Concern Group for the Rohingya states Indonesia must come up with a more permanent solution for its 13,800 refugees.
Adli Abdullah is the secretary at The International Concern Group for the Rohingya. He lives and teaches in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where most of the Rohingya arrived by boat prior to May 2015.
He wants to see Indonesia adopt a different approach for its refugees and asylum seekers, by giving them a chance to create livelihood opportunities.
“I think the Indonesian government can learn from Malaysia,” said Abdullah. “They are more human in the way they treat [the] Rohingya.”
Both Indonesia and Malaysia are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. Malaysia hosts 152,170 registered refugees and asylum seekers. It is illegal for refugees to work in Malaysia but many are able to eke out an existence.
In Indonesia, the IOM provides an allowance for refugees living at its shelters. It also provides vocational training. Refugee children are even allowed to enroll at government-run schools in Indonesia, something Malaysia does not allow.
But many refugee families in Indonesia are unable to provide transportation fees for their children to attend local schools.
Rofiq has been teaching math and English to Rohingyas living at his shelter in Medan. This has kept him occupied during the days, while at nights he reviews his American cultural orientation booklet.
“I read it every night,” he said. “I know President Trump doesn’t like refugees.”
In a phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump said: “I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad.”
President Trump was referring to a 2016 pledge Barack Obama had made to accept vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers among the 1,200 held at Australia’s offshore detention facilities – many of them were intercepted leaving Indonesia.
The number of refugees being resettled from Indonesia has been shrinking over the last few years as the global refugee crisis has grown. According to the UN, there are now 65 million people displaced worldwide. Over 20 million are refugees.
Less than one percent of them are resettled every year.
A date has now been set for Rofiq and he’s optimistic he’ll be leaving for the U.S. in the coming weeks.
“I [received] my ticket,” Rofiq said. “I am lucky. I will have freedom.”