Indonesia: Afghan Refugees Undertake Desperate Acts as Resettlement Hopes Fade

Dina Febriastuti and Ronna Nirmala
Pekanbaru, Indonesia, and Jakarta
Indonesia: Afghan Refugees Undertake Desperate Acts as Resettlement Hopes Fade Afghan refugees sewed their mouths shut and began a hunger strike outside the UNHCR office in Riau province, Indonesia, to protest the lack of prospects to resettle in third countries, Dec. 6, 2021.
Dina Febriastuti/ BenarNews

Some Afghan refugees in Indonesia have resorted to desperate acts including self-harm as prospects for their resettlement in third countries grow increasingly dim.

One of those refugees, Ahmad Shah, 22, set himself on fire last month during a protest outside the offices of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in the Indonesian city of Medan. He survived and is being treated at a Medan hospital after suffering severe burns.

This month, several Afghan refugees sewed their mouths shut and went on a hunger strike after they pitched tents outside a building housing the UNHCR office in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, another province on Sumatra Island.

Hunger strikers agreed to remove the stitches after friends persuaded them to do so.

“Many other refugees begged them to care for their health,” he told BenarNews. “Besides, the UNHCR organized a meeting to discuss their concerns and problems on Dec. 9.”

Nazir said that Muhammad Rafki, a UNHCR official in Pekanbaru, told them that there were limited places available for resettlement.

“The answer is not enough,” Nazir said. “He said they have tried, but this is the reality.”

Another refugee said they could not return to their homes in Afghanistan, which earlier this year fell under the rule of the Taliban.

“We have lived here for 10 years and it’s impossible for us to return at this time. But resettlement has not happened,” Baman Ali, 33, one of the refugees who protested in Pekanbaru, told BenarNews.

He said he and other refugees were desperate.

“We have held demonstrations many times but no one cares,” he said.

The UNHCR office in Indonesia has acknowledged that an unspecified number of refugees in Indonesia have committed suicide and said it was providing psychological counseling.

As many as 14 refugees committed suicide and six others made failed attempts, said Zuma Mohsini, a spokesman for the refugees in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province.

“Everyone is depressed because of the uncertainty of life,” Zuma said.

Hassan Ramazan, a spokesman for refugees in Jakarta, said suicide by refugees are rarely reported by Indonesian media.

“You won’t find it in the mainstream media, except in one or two places,” Hassan said.

“Why? Because the UNHCR and IOM don’t want the truth to be exposed,” he alleged, referring to the International Organization for Migration, another U.N. body.

Afghan refugees carry out silent protests inside tents in Riau province, Indonesia, Dec. 6, 2021. [Dina Febriastuti/ BenarNews]

Frustrations acknowledged

The UNHCR office said officials were concerned about the refugees’ plight, and noted that the Indonesia representative, Ann Maymann, had started a series of meetings with the refugees and local authorities.

“The UNHCR official acknowledged the frustrations expressed by the refugees and explained the resettlement process as well as its limitations, stressing that resettlement can only be offered to a very limited number of vulnerable refugees, given the low number of places available worldwide,” it said in a statement.

Over the last five years, about 3,700 refugees in Indonesia have been referred to resettlement and more than 2,700 refugees have departed, 46 percent of them from Afghanistan, it said.

Mitra Suryono, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Indonesia, said the 20 receiving countries could accept less than 1.5 percent of the 26 million refugees worldwide.

“Many of these recipient countries have reduced the number of refugees they take in recent years for various reasons,” she said.

“We understand the refugees’ wish to find a long-term solution to their displacement. We have been in regular contact with those protesting, providing counseling and psychological support to those who are willing to accept this assistance,” she said.

Mitra said the UNHCR was working to find independent living and education opportunities for refugees.

Indonesia is not a party to the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The nation prohibits refugees from obtaining jobs and attending formal schools.

The head of the immigration office in Riau, Muhammad Tito Andrianto, said there was nothing the government could do about the refugees’ demand for resettlement.

“Obviously it’s up to the UNHCR,” he said.

The UNHCR said about 13,400 refugees were in Indonesia as of May. About 7,000 of them live in greater Jakarta, while the rest are scattered in cities across the archipelago, including Medan, Pekanbaru, Tanjung Pinang and Makassar.

Indonesia has for years been a transit point for refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia seeking better lives in wealthy countries such as Australia and the United States.

During 2018 and 2019, up to 3,000 refugees arrived in Indonesia in search of asylum elsewhere.

In 2020, fewer than 1,000 asylum seekers made it to Indonesia – mostly Afghanis, Somalis, Iraqis and Rohingya from Myanmar.

Most of the Afghan refugees are ethnic Hazara, who were victims of persecution in their country because of their Shia beliefs. The refugees said they fear for the safety of their families following the return to power of Taliban extremists.


Ali, the hunger striker in Pekanbaru, said he and others could take more drastic actions unless something was done about their fate.

“We have sent a letter to convey our message to the UNHCR office here. If they don’t care, we will take the next step,” he said. “We will burn ourselves.”

Shah, the refugee who set himself on fire in Medan, is being treated in an intensive care unit for his burn injuries, according to Zuma.

“His condition is improving,” Zuma said. “The doctor said he will have to stay in the ICU for another 10 days, after that he may be transferred to the general ward.”


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Dec 11, 2021 12:06 AM

Seeing all of these, one might think that this is so wrong to do but they have no choice but to act desperately to draw attention.

Dec 11, 2021 12:52 AM

It's human rights violation by Australia as a humanitarian country and Its partner UNHCR and IOM including Indonesia. keeping refugees In hostage for political-economical purposes is clear act of violation against refugees specially Afghanistan Hazara refugees who escaped discrimination and war seeking asylum in humanitarian countries.
Only Resettlement can relieve our 10 years pain and wounds.
We want resettlement as there is no another solutions here in Indonesia due to being religious minority.