Seeking refuge: Muhammad Hafid, a Rohingya refugee, comforts his infant son while taking shelter at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) headquarters in Central Jakarta earlier last week. Some Rohingya refugees who were bound for a third country have claimed to have been abused by authorities. JP/Jerry Adiguna
In the corner of the room, Muhammad Hanif had just started to eat with his sister, Hasinah, when Jakarta Legal Aid (LBH) legal consultant came to check on them and their fellow Rohingya refugees on the third floor of the LBH office.
Hanif wore a dull white shirt with a plaid sarong covering his thin, dark-skinned body. The eyes of the 38-year-old man from Myanmar seem tired and lost.
He went to sit on the floor, but the consultant asked him to have a seat on the leather couch. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I just want people to help me and my family to get citizenship,” he said.
The long-standing discrimination and human rights abuses against members of the minority group in Myanmar, which have intensified recently, have caused hundreds of thousands to seek asylum in other countries, including Indonesia.
Hanif, whose parents fled Myanmar in the 1980s, is trying to find a new country to live in and is one of 506 asylum seekers and 135 refugees who have ended up in Indonesia, either directly or through other countries like Malaysia.
Predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia, unlike Australia and most other countries in the Asia Pacific region, have not ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, which stipulates that refugees from political or other forms of persecution should not be penalized for illegal entry or overstay.
Australia ratified the convention in 1954 and in 2011 began to increase their humanitarian intake of refugees.
Hanif told The Jakarta Post that his parents had fled Mangdaw, a town in the Rakhine State in the western part of Myanmar three decades ago. In the 1980s, the Myanmar government had refused to acknowledge that the Rohingya ethnic group, believed to have been imported from Bangladesh as farm laborers during the British colonial period, was qualified for citizenship.
“After living 30 years in Malaysia and having many interviews at the UNHCR office there, I realized we didn’t have much hope for citizenship,” he said.
Hanif brought his family to Indonesia, in January. They came in through Medan, North Sumatra, and stayed there for two months before continuing their journey to Jakarta.
Unfortunately, Indonesia treats asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, who are usually sent to detention centers and returned to their country of origin.
“That’s why I decided to take my family to Australia from Indonesia,” Hanif said.
The plan failed. Hanif said his family was deceived by a group of eight men who promised to take them to Australia for Rp 132 million (US$13,200).
“Instead, these men took us to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and locked us in an empty warehouse after beating us,” he said.
A janitor working near the warehouse found and helped the desperate Rohingya family. Hanif said that it was this man who took them to the UNHCR office in Kebon Sirih, Central Jakarta, to request refugee status.
“The UNHCR staff said that the process could take a long time. They need to verify whether we are really Rohingya or not,” he said.
While waiting for verification, the Rohingya family has lived in many places, including the Sunda Kelapa mosque. Now, LBH Jakarta is voluntarily supporting them.
Febi Yonesta from the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Protection told the Post that according to the UNHCR data, 8,584 persons of concern have come to Indonesia to seek asylum and refuge since 2008.
Some of these persons of concern live in detention centers, such as those in Medan, Jakarta, Makassar, Manado, Pekanbaru and Kupang. Others live outside the detention centers without any legal protection or access to education, health services or jobs.
“The government needs to create a law to protect refugees who want to seek asylum and to differentiate them from criminals and illegal immigrants,”he said. (tam)