Trump policy dims hope for refugees in Indonesian limbo
PUNCAK, Indonesia -- After getting death threats from Al-Shabab militants, Mohamed Dahir Saeed and his wife fled their native Somalia with plans to seek safety in Australia. They arrived in nearby Indonesia, only to be told "the sea is closed" for anyone attempting to make the perilous boat journey south.
That was two years ago. Now another chance may be disappearing for Saeed and thousands of other asylum seekers who have made it to this Southeast Asian country with dreams of finding better lives elsewhere.
"The majority of people here, the U.S. takes them," Saeed said. "Now the U.S. they say no Somalian, no Iraq, no Syrian, no Iran, no Sudan. ... So maybe we will go to another place. I hope," he said Tuesday, seated outside his tiny house perched above the Ciliwung River.
For thousands of asylum seekers and refugees from Iraq, Somalia and other conflict-scarred countries, Indonesia is an often yearslong hiatus as they wait for the U.S. or another country to accept them. President Donald Trump's travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim countries and suspension of the U.S. refugee program has now made their tenuous situation even more uncertain.
Indonesia is home to nearly 14,000 men, women and children seeking resettlement in other countries, according to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. About 7,500 have been recognized as refugees, giving them the prized U.N. card that inches them closer to realizing their dreams of a better life. But last year just 610 were resettled in other countries such as the U.S., Canada, Germany and New Zealand.
At least 2,700 of those in limbo here are from countries listed in Trump's 90-day travel ban: Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Libya. Asylum seekers in general are affected by his 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program, and by his decision to cut the number of refugees the U.S. accepts this budget year by more than half, to 50,000.
Some 3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.
Saeed, 31, said that if he had the chance he'd tell the U.S. president that as a Somalian he's a "peace man." He said he left Somalia after Al-Shabab militants fighting the government pressured him to join their group, and that one of the militants wanted Saeed's wife for himself.
"Now in Somalia there is a war from Al-Shabab and government. So these Somalis who run from Somalia, they need peace because they need to work, they need to feed their family. They are looking for a better life."
Indonesia, a vast but poor archipelago country of more than 250 million people in Southeast Asia, might seem an unlikely refuge. Initially, many people fled there because they believed it would be a jumping-off point to reach Australia by boat. That possibility no longer exists: Since September 2013, the Australian government has turned back the often barely seaworthy vessels.
Puncak, a small West Java city nestled beneath a mountain that tempers Indonesia's tropical heat, is a magnet for men from the Middle East seeking sex and a pleasant climate. Because of its proximity to Jakarta, where asylum seekers can be summoned for a refugee interview, and because of the low cost of living, many families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan and other nations also scrape out an existence there.
Saeed is waiting in Puncak for a UNHCR interview he said he was told could happen in a year. Before that, he and his wife stayed on Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore, in accommodations overseen by the International Organization for Migration.
It was good there, he said. Food, a room and an operation for his wife to remove a cyst that made her infertile. But when UNHCR told them there would be no refugee interviews there, they made the agonizing choice a month ago to come to Java.
They sold their mobile phones for money. His wife is sick again, but an operation is out of the question. One plus: The cool climate means they don't to buy a fan or an air conditioner - an unthinkable expense.
Despite the meager existence in Puncak, the endless days of boredom, the frustration and the waiting, living among the general population is for many preferable to the alternative of staying in one of the Indonesian government's overcrowded detention centers or camps.
The government of predominantly Muslim Indonesia allows asylum seekers to live in the community but they are not permitted to work and lack access to schools and public hospitals.
There is no financial support unless a nongovernmental group gets involved. If relatives or friends abroad stop sending money, surrendering to a detention center is the only option left.
Khairullah, a minority Sunni Muslim from Iraq, said he fled Mosul about two years ago with his wife and two young sons. The Iraqi city was liberated last month from Islamic State group militants who captured it in the summer of 2014.
"I want to go outside (Iraq) because there my life is very dangerous. Maybe I'm dead, maybe my wife is dead. Maybe one of my children," said Khairullah, who ran a barbershop in Iraq.
He said he couldn't afford to live in Turkey or Jordan, but a friend convinced him that life in Indonesia's camps was decent, with two rooms for a family, money and food.
"When I come here to Indonesia, I go to the camp, I don't see this. One room, small room, no money, food no good. I can't stay there."
Now the family, expanded to five with the birth of a daughter in Indonesia, waits to hear the outcome of a refugee interview they had five months ago. Khairullah said a sister in Iraq sends $300 a month, but not always because of the chaotic conditions in the country.
"Now we see the Trump news. No Muslims. Don't come, Muslims," he said, cradling his toddler Rawan.
"You know, I don't sleep at night, just thinking. What about my future? For me it's OK. But what about the future of my sons? What about my daughter with no ID? What about them? I don't know what I do."