Refugees in Indonesia and Iraq Condemn Western Indifference

None of the seven countries worldwide that host over half a million refugees are in Europe or North America. It is a fact which bears thinking about. In Lebanon, one in six people is now a refugee. Imagine 10 million asylum-seekers arriving in the UK, rather than the paltry 100,000 or so we currently host, to get some sense of how meagre our contribution really is on a global scale.

Europe has outsourced responsibility for housing 3.4 million refugees to the autocratic Erdoğan administration in Turkey, now the world’s foremost host of refugees; increasingly draconian border regimes in Australia and the USA are condemning hundreds of thousands of refugees to linger for years in inhumane conditions in refugee camps across West Asia; so-called ‘developing’ countries, primarily in Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, host 84% of the world’s refugees.

Of course, just because refugees are located outside the global North doesn’t mean they have no relevance to the European polity or Western society. Those in Turkey are one of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most powerful weapons to pound the West with: when I worked in Lesvos, it often seemed that you could gauge how hot or cold relations were between Ankara and Brussels by the number of boats crossing from Asia Minor on to European shores on any given night.

By the same token, we are not powerless to help them. Whether facing sectarian floggings in Iraq, or a promised decade of detention without trial in In Indonesia, these testimonies from refugees in two countries outside of Europe show a keen awareness of the West’s role in keeping them incarcerated.

They are young, but have suffered far beyond their years, fleeing Isis and the Taliban only to be confined in squalid, brutal detention centres and stripped of even the scant protection afforded to asylum-seekers on European shores.

Their voices – and the demands they make of Western governments and activists alike – must be heard.

Erfan, 21, is a Hazara refugee who fled Taliban violence in Afghanistan. He has been awaiting resettlement to Australia in an Indonesian detention centre for three and a half years.

For three and half years I have been detained in intolerable conditions in a state of constant uncertainty, itself a form of torture. For three and a half years, I have been unable to give my family any reassurance about my future.

Since arriving in this detention centre I have tried to occupy my time positively, teaching other detainees English and interpreting between my fellow refugees and the doctors. It is hard being locked up for an indefinite period in a cramped, dark prison like a caged bird, when I have committed no crime.

The most destructive aspect of being held in the overcrowded, unsanitary and inhumane detention centre is that our confinement has no definite end date. Even criminals held for terrible crimes all know their expected release date. We refugees endure the slow, slow procedure of transferring refugees from the detention centres to local community housing, where they are free to go out and about, and buy their basic life needs from the local shops and markets.

We have no access to mental health care. We also have no access to better recreational activities or educational materials to entertain and inform ourselves in this dark, horrific cage.

Even the situation of those refugees who have been freed to live in community housing is causing concern. Refugees are not allowed to work or enrol in educational institutions or schools, so there is no opportunity to improve our minds or our financial situations.

Worse, the immigration officials have lately imposed a lot of unnecessary restrictive curfews on these refugees’ movement. Like those of us still in detention, they don’t know when or if they will be offered resettlement in a third country. Destination resettlement countries like Australia and America have introduced tough new policies which affect refugees in Indonesia.

Recently UNHCR visited refugees in detention in Indonesia inform them that resettlement is ‘not your right; you may not be resettled in a third destination country even in the next ten years, as the number of refugees worldwide has reached record levels.’ This devastating news cast many refugees into bleak despair. Two young men, having lost all hope of ever finding a safer place to call home, committed suicide.

Our hope for freedom is finished. Our hope for finding a safer home will never become reality unless our current situation changes.

Khalaf, 17, is a Yazidi refugee who fled the Isis genocide in Sinjar in 2014. He has been in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan for the past 3 years, since he was 14.

ISIS headed towards us, murdering, raping, and seizing the land. 10,000 Yazidis were butchered in days.

Yet the UN turns a blind eye. Because we are still in our native country, we are technically considered internally displaced people (IDPs), not refugees. The UN will only resettle refugees for asylum – they hand responsibility for our fate to a government which has long persecuted us.

To take one example, in Iraq Yazidis are not allowed to sell dairy products or produce on the open market nor work in any food related services, since we are considered unclean.

It is unsurprising, then, that the camps which are supposed to offer us refuge are inhumane deathtraps. The tents are rotted from the sun and are not fireproof. Recently, 20 tents burned to the ground. This is not uncommon as it is winter and we have no heating oil, so people use candles, little fires, and do anything they can to keep from freezing. We only have 6 hours electricity daily.

The tents are built directly onto dirt and often flood in the rains. We do not ever have enough food rations or medicine. Sickness runs rampant throughout all the camps, both physical and mental. Jobs are almost non-existent and we are not allowed to speak out or complain about our treatment, or we are arrested and ‘re-educated.’

Yazidis are not allowed to convene in large groups for political purposes. Therefore, it is very difficult for us to organize to demand our rights. We are treated like prisoners.

One method of re-education favoured by the secret police is to soak the victim in liquid for several hours. This softens the skin so the lashes of a whip are more painful. Not much is said after one is ‘re-educated’. People come out ‘reserved’.

Few donations to NGOs ever gets to the Yazidis themselves. Most hire only people of the majority Sunni Islam faith and pay them fair salaries. They will hire one Yazidi as a token employee and pay him a poor salary. Meanwhile, goods go ‘missing’ on the black market.

We need Western governments not only to recognise that genocide has been committed against us, as the UN has already done, but to make laws to allow the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians to emigrate to their countries.

Instead, they have closed their doors to us. We are living in hell.

Published 26th April 2018

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