Rice Paddies, Indonesia

I travelled to Java in January 2015 and met an Iranian man named Ashkan. He wrote this piece about life in Indonesia at my request. Any edits or alterations I made were for clarification purposes. All opinions and information provided in this piece are his own.

When you arrive to Jakarta international airport, and you are an asylum seeker from a Middle Eastern country you should pay a bribe to the airport immigration security. The bribe range can differ from US$100 to US$2000 depending on the level of English you can speak and the number of the countries you have been to, and your appearance. After this you will get a one-month visa. Some asylum seekers go to Malaysia and pay the smugglers to get on the boats to reach Indonesia, even though there is a UNHCR office in Malaysia itself and they are able to work there.

After you make it out of the Jakarta airport you will feel confused seeing this polluted city and Indonesian people. You will be shocked for a few days. The first thing you have to do after arriving in Jakarta is to register with UNHCR as an asylum seeker and get a certificate or license to stay in Jakarta which may take up to one or sometimes two months. The total UNHCR resettlement process can take from 3 to 5 years all together. After registering with the UNHCR you should go find a place to stay and wait for the process to start a new life.

The second step of UNHCR process is to go and change or renew the certificate they already gave you before it expires. At this stage they will usually give you a date for the interview with the UNHCR process which usually will be from 13 to 17 months from the date. After the interview it may take the UNHCR officer one month to sometimes more than a year to give you the result of the interview. For easier cases, usually it takes one to three months, but it can take up to one year for more complex cases.

If a UNHCR officer accepts you as a refugee, you will receive a refugee ID card and you should wait for one or two more years for the resettlement process. If the UNHCR officer rejects you as a refugee, you may be given a second chance to bring them more documents to prove your story or to convince them with some explanations. But if they reject you twice you will be given no more chances and you should go back to your country or try to go to another country illegally by paying the smugglers.

Refugees will be settled in one of the following countries: USA, New Zealand, Australia, or Canada. You should wait for your turn patiently, sometimes for years. UNHCR submits your case file to one of the above countries and you will be interviewed by an embassy officer. If the officer accepts your case, you will go for a medical checkup and if you are healthy you will wait for a visa which can take up to one more year. Since Indonesia is a populated country and most of the people are seeking jobs, the Indonesian government does not allow refugees and asylum seekers to work here. Therefore refugees must live in this country for three to five years without any income or assistance from UNHCR. These years for refugees are mostly wasted here. There are a few learning centres started by American or Australian people in Jakarta and Bogor but they are not operating really well. I wish UNHCR and IOM could start a big learning centre for all the refugees instead of supporting only some of them unfairly. They could start a learning centre and a hospital so all refugees can have health insurance and facilities to learn English and other useful skills for their future lives in western countries.

‘Single’ refugees may share a house with other refugees to cut expenses and stay safe. Some refugees find Indonesian girlfriends and stay with them. Some find rich old Indonesian women or gay people and work as a sex worker for them. They are offered a place to live and money to have a sexual relationship with them. For couples and families it is more difficult: many families fall apart here due to financial or infidelity problems. The loyal families and couples usually rent a small unit and spend most of their time in the unit because going out costs a lot of money here.

The Church World Service (CWS), Jesuit Refugee Service (JSR) and some churches help a few refugees here. CWS mostly helps minors or sick people or vulnerable refugees such as single women or girls and it is not easy to get their support. They will always tell you: “We have not enough budget”. I heard from a single mum that one of the CWS staff told her if she consents to sexual relations with him he would do his best to get CWS to support her. JRS only helps asylum seekers in the Cisarua area and not the refugees. They have some English classes for refugees.

The other option for refugees and asylum seekers is to go to churches and ask for their help. Those who claim they were persecuted in their countries for being Christians receive more benefits from attending the church. Many people pretend to be Christian to receive more help. There is an international church in Jakarta which is helping more than 150 refugees with their expenses and has started a Farsi praying service.

Indonesian immigration sends asylum seekers who are arrested on smugglers’ boats or are arrested for other reasons to stay in camps. If you are arrested and put in these camps, you must stay there and wait for your UNHCR process to finish. If UNHCR accepts you as a refugee, IOM will provide you with accommodation and a monthly US$100 allowance. This policy used to encourage people to go on the boats before the Indonesian government could catch them. It is also possible to bribe Indonesian immigration so they arrest you and deliver you to IOM to make them give you a house and a salary.

Most of the single refugees live in Bogor since it is cheap to rent a house there. The rent for a room in Bogor ranges from around A$30 to A$400 monthly depending on the place and its facilities. For couples and families it is not easy to live in Bogor because the people in the area stare at Middle Eastern and foreign women. There are some reports of abuse. I heard a few stories of men who broke into families’ houses and abused the women and stole money and laptops and phones. Some people break into refugees’ and asylum seekers’ houses wearing police uniforms; the police never try to stop that.

If you choose to live in Jakarta the cost of rent ranges from around A$200 monthly to A$600 depending on the units and buildings. There are also single small rooms called kost, which you can rent for A$100 per month. Only one person is able to live in a kost and you share the kitchen and bathroom with other residents living in other rooms. Living in Jakarta can be costly since Indonesia imports many goods such as butter and honey and some fruits from Australia and New Zealand. We may spend A$800 to A$1000 monthly for rent and food.

As an asylum seeker you cannot go to police to ask for help if something happens to you. An Indonesian lady stole my wife’s cell phone from her purse in a mall in front of a security camera, and the police refused to even check the security cameras for us. Police may even arrest and jail you when you go to them to ask for help.

I think UNHCR can make the process much faster if countries increase their refugee annual intake. They can also make the process less confusing for refugees and answer refugees’ questions clearly. Refugees and asylum seekers can only call UNHCR to ask their questions about their ongoing process from 3pm to 5pm on Fridays and there is only one phone line to contact them which is always busy. Even if you can contact them successfully the only answer you receive is: “We do not know. Be patient!!”

It would be great if they could start a school and a hospital for all refugees so every asylum seeker and refugee can use it when they need. We get sick many times here and the hospital costs are very expensive.


  1. riri says:

    Where are u from ? How could we help them ?

  2. Syed zaman says:

    I am a refugee living in indonesia for a long time its 4 years that i am living here we need help there is no one hear our soud we can’t live in a place without any Income we are dying here please help is spacialy makassar refugees

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