Refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, many of whom fled persecution and conflict in their home countries, say they are being driven to get on boats for Australia out of frustration with the resettlement process.
“It’s been two years that I have been here. How long am I supposed to wait?” asked Liaqat Ali Yousufi, 32, an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan’s eastern Ghazni Province, who was registered as a refugee in November 2011 and had hoped to be resettled to Australia by now. “The process doesn’t work. There are people waiting three or four years” he said.
“It just doesn’t make sense anymore. Sometimes I think it would just be easier to get on a boat,” Riad Kamil, 50, an Iraqi asylum seeker from Baghdad, whose case is on appeal after he was refused refugee status in 2011. Both men live in community housing in the town of Pucak, a hub for asylum seekers and their families - and the people smugglers ready to assist them - about 80km outside of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
Almost all of the residents have been granted refugee status by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and some are families seeking asylum.
“You can’t blame them. It [refugee determination] is an open-ended process, and that’s the frustration - there are no dates for anything,” said an aid worker who asked not to be named.
Barred from working, the men and their families are dependent on a handful of agencies and non-governmental organizations working to assist them while their cases are pending.
But they could also be considered lucky - more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly single males, now languish in 12 government detention centres across Indonesia while their claims for refugee status are being determined.
According to UNHCR, there are close to 6,000 asylum seekers and recognized refugees in Indonesia (4,552 asylum seekers and 1,180 registered refugees), mainly from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Many of their cases have been pending for two to three years, or even longer, activists groups say.
“We are aware of this and are, of course, doing our best to address the problems that a long procedure poses to the situation of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Manuel Jordao, the UNHCR country representative in Indonesia
Since 2009 there has been a spike in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the country, from 385 in 2008 to 3,230 in 2009, and 3,905 in 2010, UNHCR reported.
This in turn has led to an increase in the number of people in detention that are of concern to the agency, which does not enough resources to cope with the influx.
At the end of May 2012 there were 1,159 cases were waiting to be interviewed, 41 percent of them in detention.
But for many asylum seekers and recognized refugees, the delays in the processing their cases is doing little more than pushing them onto boats - a move UNHCR strongly advises against.
Smugglers charge an average of US$6,000 per person - less for children - for the dangerous journey in often overcrowded and poorly maintained boats, depending on the time of year.
In 2011 the Indonesian authorities intercepted more than 100 groups of people in various parts of the country, or in boats mostly off the coast of Sumatra.
“We understand that it is not easy to stay because of what are often long waiting periods. However, when we look at the number of boat tragedies recently, we hope that refugees will be more patient and wait for a safe solution to their lives,” Jordao said.
On 22 June, rescuers were searching for dozens of people in the sea after a boat carrying up to 200 asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia sank near Christmas Island, an Australian possession
The island outpost is closer to Indonesia than Australia and has long been targeted by asylum-seekers hoping to reach mainland Australia.
“If the Australian government was willing to process asylum seekers in Indonesia and guarantee that recognized refugees would be resettled, far fewer people would need to get on a boat to get protection,” said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman from the Australian Refugee Action Coalition.
UNHCR said 522 of the 911 refugee cases submitted to Australia from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2011 were accepted.
In May 2012, 24 refugees departed for resettlement in Australia, and there are 529 refugee cases now pending.