The view from Indonesia where refugees wait

Registered adult refugees in Indonesia receive the equivalent of roughly $4 per day (children about half that), mostly through the International Organisation of Migration, and are forbidden to work.

The Indonesian government washes its hands of the consequences.

“The Republic of Indonesia does not ratify the 1951 Convention and the 1967 protocol on Refugees, so Indonesia does not have the obligation to shelter refugees,” says Rudolph Alberth Rodja, head of the country’s foreign refugee handling taskforce.

“However, for humanitarian reasons, the president allows for [Indonesia] to be a space for transit before they go to a third country. All responsibilities for handling the refugees are with the UNHCR. So far, they have been well taken care of.”

From Medan, on the island of Sumatra, a Sri Lankan asylum seeker who asks to not be named pleads for resettlement and more international assistance.

His youngest daughter has a foot deformity, he says, and the shoes she requires, which she regularly outgrows, cost more than an entire month of his allowance.

Rahimi uses her fluent Indonesian, learned from scratch when she arrived aged 23, to volunteer as an interpreter for other refugees.Credit: Zach Hope

“The refugees who have lived in Indonesia, like me, won’t have the money to pay people smugglers,” he says.

“There are maybe 3000 to 4000 asylum seekers living in Medan. No one I know would go to Australia by boat [anyway]. They know Australia will send them to Manus and Nauru. We follow the news. Resettlement to a third country is our only way out.”

In 2015, when they did have money, he and his pregnant wife joined a boatload of asylum seekers aiming for New Zealand. The mission was intercepted by Australian authorities, who were later discovered to have paid the crew thousands of dollars to turn back to Indonesia.


The family, now with three children, has been here ever since.

“No [people smuggler] has approached us to go to Australia by boat, not for years,” he says. “We will never try to go to Australia by boat again, the journey is too dangerous. My wife and I, we could’ve died.

“That man who resettled in New Zealand, that guy Behrouz [Boochani], we follow his story. It’s not Australia, but he was resettled to another country. We were happy for him. We will only go to Australia legally if they take us – or any other country. Please, help my family.”

Rahimi says she has never been approached by a people smuggler in her ten years living in Indonesia, five of them in the village of Ciawi. If refugees knew they could settle in Australia by boat, she says, they wouldn’t be waiting so long in Indonesia.

“We leave our countries to be safe, so we don’t want to put ourselves at risk to go by boat to Australia,” she says.

“The UNHCR doesn’t pay attention to the real situation of refugees. It says the situation is better … it is not true. We are hopeless.”

Ezat Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee who lives in Indonesia

“There is a door – the door is the UNHCR.”

For all but a small percentage each year, that door is closed. Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show Australia last year resettled marginally fewer asylum seekers living in Indonesia than Canada or New Zealand. Of the 1500 total in 2023, the United States accepted about half.

Australia was regularly resettling upwards of 400 each year from 2011, but this dipped sharply from 2018 and continued at historically low levels through the COVID-19 pandemic, rising to 200 or more in 2022 and 2023.


The Australian government is central to the lives of UNHCR-registered refugees in Indonesia because it provides the bulk of the monthly stipends divvied out by the IOM. But in March 2018, it stopped funding new arrivals, leaving some so desperate they camped outside immigration detention centres hoping to be let inside.

The Home Affairs department, UNHCR and IOM Indonesia were contacted for comment

Ezat Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee who leads protests outside Jakarta’s UNHCR and Indonesian government buildings, says many of the post-2018 arrivals receive nothing at all. The policy, aimed at deterring people from seeking shelter on Australia’s doorstep, added to an earlier government decision to not resettle refugees arriving in Indonesia after July 2014.

Suicide is common among the refugees, Ahmadi says. Many live with chronic disease.

“We sincerely request to the Australian government that they increase their [migration] quotas and their proceeds,” he says.

Pictured here are the leaders of the Taliban. The militia group targeted Bibi Rahimi after she refused to quit her job as a teacher in Afghanistan.Credit: AP

“Unfortunately, the UNHCR doesn’t pay attention to the real situation of refugees. It reports and says the situation is better, actually it is not true. We are hopeless.”

When Rahimi arrived in Indonesia ten years ago, she says the UNHCR waiting time was a few years. Given the alternative, this was endurable. Indonesia was also a Muslim-majority country and affordable. It made sense.

In Afghanistan, she was the only meaningful income earner after the murders of her siblings and marriage of surviving sister. She loved working as a teacher and nurse, but the Taliban did not. She refused their demands for her to quit, so, one evening about midnight, they came for her. Hearing them enter, she snuck out the back door and sheltered with a friend.

With the Taliban ruling Afghanistan again, she accepts she is unlikely to ever return.

“If I knew that I would stay here for ten years, I would have preferred to have died in Afghanistan, at least to have been able to help my father,” she says.

“When he died, I was crying in my room because he was actually my everything, sir. Almost a heart attack came to me because it was beating so fast. And after some minutes, I told myself, ‘No, if you die, what happens to your mum and nephews? You have to fight’.”

If she can ever work again, Rahimi hopes it will be with a human rights organisation helping people like her. But with no news about her resettlement, she waits alone in Ciawi.

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