Hundreds of asylum seekers hit the streets of Makassar in protest this week, calling out local immigration officials over a sudden rise in heavy policing and nightly curfew checks in this South Sulawesi city.
The protest, which included asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan, was the latest in a series of demonstrations held by asylum seekers in Indonesia this month. There are more than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Indonesia—the vast majority of them trapped in an extended limbo as traditional resettlement countries like the United States adopt a more anti-refugee stance.
Asylum seekers in Indonesia are afforded few options. They can't legally work, can't receive an education, and can't just move elsewhere. Now, in Makassar, these asylum seekers are chafing under even more restrictions—restrictions they say authorities only started to enforce once the new chief of the local immigration detention center took office.
Local asylum seekers told VICE that the center, under the authority of new chief Boedi Prayitno, has become obsessed with policing the community. The law only requires asylum seekers to check in with local immigration officials once a month. In the past, they were allowed to move freely, leaving the city when they pleased, Hussein explained.
“We were able to move freely in the city," Hussein told VICE. "We could go for outings, even far away from Makassar."
Now, refugees and asylum seekers are restricted to staying within the city, and have to report each time they leave and enter their assigned housing, explained Hussein, a Pakistani refugee who asked VICE not to use his real name out of fear of punishment for speaking out against the immigration office.
The asylum seekers now have to live under a nightly curfew. They need to be back in their rooms by 10 PM and once inside the shelters they aren't allowed to leave, Hussein told VICE.
“Each night they enter the rooms and take attendance," Hussein told VICE. "[They check] whether this guy is present in the room or not. This creates anxiety, besides all the other problems we are facing."
There's nothing in Indonesian law that would mandate these kinds of forced curfews or daily visits by police, explained Alldo Fellix Januardy, a human rights lawyer with the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) who works with refugee communities.
"Curfew regulations vary in each shelter because it’s under the authority of the manager, but many places apply it," Alldo told VICE. "My position is to try to change that and encourage a better reception of refugees in Indonesia."
Indonesia hasn't signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, but a 2016 Presidential Decree on the Treatment of Refugees in Indonesia grants them some rights, such as freedom of movement. But it also includes some language that places the bulk of the responsibility in the hands of cities and districts.
The Makassar immigration office used that decree to move some 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers from detention centers into community housing with the help of the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And while the Presidential Decree does not mention any curfew, it says that managers of refugee shelters can impose house rules, Alldo explained.
Some of those caught violating these new rules have allegedly been beaten and detained by police. Two weeks ago, an Afghan refugee was found in his friend’s room after curfew. According to Hussein, immigration authorities showed up two days later “with full power, about 50 immigration police.” Four men were beaten and detained. Only one of them was later released.
“They took hell out of them,” Hussein said.
At Wednesday's protest in Makassar, the demonstrators demanded the release of the three Afghan asylum seekers still in detention. No one knows exactly why the men were detained in the first place, or what laws they violated.
VICE reached out to Antje Missbach, a lecturer at Australia’s Monash University who has studied Indonesia’s refugee situation extensively, to see if she had a clearer sense of what was going on. Missbach told VICE that she knew the arrests had occurred, but was unclear on exactly why this was happening.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) told VICE they were monitoring the situation, but declined to speak about whether the Makassar immigration office was overstepping its bounds by enforcing rules not detailed in any law.
"We are aware of the situation and we are currently working with both the refugees and the government on what to do about it,” said Mitra Salima, public information officer at UNHCR Indonesia.
The idea behind the Presidential Decree that put the responsibility in the hands of local administrators was to free these asylum seekers from detention centers. But if they're being watched daily and forced to remain in their rooms after curfew, is their life now really all that different from when they were behind bars, Alldo asked.
“My view is, Indonesia has to handle the refugee crisis with more than just a symbolic gesture of giving social support," he told VICE. "Indonesia has to treat them like human beings."