The teenage boys curled up atop pieces of scrap cardboard as they prepared to spend another night sleeping on the sidewalk outside the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) office in the Indonesian capital.
They had travelled thousands of kilometres, fleeing violence and persecution in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. After perilous journeys aboard smugglers’ boats, they ended up confused and vulnerable to assault on the streets of Jakarta where they make their homes. The government doesn’t provide shelter, aside from detention centres in some cases.
“This situation is really bad,” said 17-year-old Mohammad Amin Ahmadi from Afghanistan. “It is so dangerous. We are worried about our future. What will happen? How will we stay here?”
Ahmadi’s dream is to make it to the United States and resume his education, which was halted at fifth grade. But a refugee crisis unfolding half a world away will likely mean a very long wait for resettlement for Ahmadi and other refugees.
Resettlement has long been a solution for only a tiny proportion of the total refugee population (about one percent in 2014). But UNHCR says the refugee crisis created by Syria’s civil war has added further pressure on such programmes, meaning there are even fewer opportunities for refugees in Southeast Asia to be resettled.
The agency’s Indonesia representative, Thomas Vargas, said the impact is already being felt in countries like Indonesia, which, like most countries in the region, is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers are given no special protection or prospect of integration.
Only those legally recognised as refugees by UNHCR can hope for eventual resettlement to a third country. But the process of getting refugee status and then applying for resettlement can take two to three years. Vargas expects it to take significantly longer in the near future.
“The demand for resettlement far exceeds the number of refugees that there are places for in the world,” Vargas said. “It is becoming harder and harder because of the state of the world we live in right now.”
More refugees, fewer spots
More than four million people have already fled Syria, according to World Vision, while another 6.6 million are displaced within the country. A number of nations in Europe and elsewhere have responded by offering to resettle Syrians, while refugees from other countries – Afghanistan in particular – are considered less of a priority.
Yet, the number of people fleeing Afghanistan is dramatically increasing as security deteriorates. Emboldened by the withdrawal of most American troops, the Taliban is mounting a resurgence 14 years after being driven from power. The so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, has also been making inroads, while pro-government militias abuse and extort civilians.
Afghanistan is now second only to Syria in the number of its people arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR. Afghans comprised 19 percent of the nearly 800,000 migrants and refugees who arrived by sea to Europe throughout 2015 up to November, which is equivalent to about 150,648 people.
Still more Afghans, like Ahmadi, have chosen a more circuitous route through Southeast Asia in a bid to gain asylum. As a member of the ethnic and religious minority Hazara group, Ahmadi has even more to run from than others in Afghanistan as extremist groups gain more ground.
The Hazara are Shiite Muslims in a Sunni majority country. They have historically been marginalised and even persecuted under various regimes, perhaps most mercilessly by the Taliban, which was overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2001. When the Taliban took the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, their fighters slaughtered at least 2,000 civilians, mostly Hazaras, according to Human Rights Watch.
In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch documented ongoing attacks against the Hazara across the border in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which is a Taliban stronghold. Hundreds have been killed since 2008, and the “situation has prompted large numbers of Hazara to flee Pakistan for refuge in other countries,” the organisation said.
Indonesia has long been used as a stopover for refugees from various countries, but many get stranded as they wait to be officially recognised and then accepted for resettlement by a third country. First they need to wait until their asylum claim is approved, then they can apply for resettlement. At that point, UNHCR forwards their application to countries with resettlement programmes. If one country rejects the application, the process begins again.
A lifetime on the run
Ahmadi is the product of a history of attacks on members of his community. A lifetime of trying to escape violence has led him here, to this patch of concrete outside the UNHCR office in Jakarta.
Ahmadi’s family is from Parwan, a province in central Afghanistan, but they fled to neighbouring Iran, the Shiite-majority country where he was born. His father moved the family to the Iranian capital, Tehran, after his decision to support a powerful Hazara political party led to attempts on his life. When his father became ill, the family fell into poverty and Ahmadi had to cut his education short in order to work.
In 2008, the Iranian government announced it would deport more than a million unregistered Afghan refugees, many of them Hazara. Ahmadi’s brother was deported to Afghanistan and went to Parwan Province, where he was killed by unknown assailants.
When Ahmadi was told he would be deported to Afghanistan with his uncle, he began to fear for his life. He was sure his brother’s killing was connected to the political dispute that forced his father to flee years earlier. Then, he and his uncle were sent back. A few months later, his uncle was killed and Ahmadi decided it was time to leave.
A smuggler in Kabul told Ahmadi to work his way to Indonesia, where he said the wait times for resettlement were the shortest in the region. The teenager flew to India, and later caught a flight to Malaysia where he paid $1,500 to board a boat bound for Indonesia.
End of the road
Despite the dangers back in Afghanistan, Ahmadi now wonders if he made a mistake by leaving.
As night fell, Ahmadi and the other teenage Hazara refugees packed in tight along the sidewalk. It’s the only place they said they feel safe sleeping after being attacked around the corner a few weeks ago.
The boys said a large group of Indonesians confronted them during the night and began to shout. Most of the refugees had been in the country only a matter of months and none spoke enough Bahasa Indonesian to understand what was being said. But they all remembered one man shouting, “Disini Indonesia!” (“This is Indonesia!”), before punching one of the boys in the face, breaking his nose.
Ahmadi and his friends eyed the Indonesian teenagers strumming an acoustic guitar and singing down the block with suspicion. Ahmadi sat on his scrap of cardboard in socks and a stretched out t-shirt as he rifled through his backpack to pull out a worn notebook. He removed a pristine white envelope from between its pages and gently opened the letter before smoothing it out on the ground.
The letter listed his refugee information and the date of his next interview with UNHCR. The appointment is in five months time. Ahmadi doesn’t know if he can survive on the streets that long, let alone the years it will take for resettlement. He worries that by the time he gets resettled he will be in his 20s and hampered by his halting English and poor education.
“We are still young. We can improve,” Ahmadi said before pausing a moment to think. “But not after five years.”