We all have heard about refugees – people who fled from war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country – but, how much do we understand about them? How much do we really know about their realities and struggles?
The majority of refugees come from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Due to the political instability, human rights violation, and severe violence in their home countries, their lives at home could be taken away at any time possible. The decision to leave home is never an easy one. Uncertainty and difficulties await on their long journey ahead – overcrowded boat, malnutrition, lack of water, and hopelessly floating on the ocean for months just to arrive in their destined countries. All of these fears and nights spent in cold only to search for safety, happiness, and freedom.
While most of them aim to go to European countries as their final destination, many of them are also aiming to go to Australia. However, their journey to reach Australia is far from easy. After crossing dangerous borders and risking their lives, these asylum seekers will arrive in Southeast Asian countries – name it Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia – to claim their refugee status assisted by the UNHCR. Only after that, they can be resettled in their final destined country. Unfortunately, this Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process could take up to two or three years for them, leaving these refugees in a long doubt.
According to UNHCR, there are 65 million internally displaced people, with 25.9 million are seeking refugee status. With this massive number, Thailand opens its door for more than 7,600 of them, while Indonesia accepts around 18,000 of them and Malaysia welcomes more than 155,000 of them. Although these three countries are the largest host for refugees in Southeast Asia, none of them have signed to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This has caused almost zero national legal protection mechanism on them, making these refugees ‘illegal migrants’ who have no access to education, work, and public health care.
Though considered safe havens for many, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are still not fully capable of protecting the lives of these refugees due to many factors. With the lack of national frameworks, many of them are left in highly vulnerable positions, making them prone to be any subject of discrimination, violence, and exploitation.
In Indonesia, for example, the refugees are building camps around UNHCR building in the Greater Jakarta area while waiting for their refugee status to be obtained. While camping, there are lots of challenges they are currently facing: infectious diseases, discrimination, inadequate living conditions as well as lack of food and water. With zero access to employment, they have to purely rely on any social organization such as UNHCR or any other local communities to provide them with basic needs.
Aside from poor living conditions, these refugees are often prone to any discrimination. With no official citizenship, many locals tend to see them as a ‘trouble-maker’ that disrupts the community. In Jakarta, there are even some banners made by locals that prohibited refugees to live and camp in around that area. Many locals mentioned that they feel afraid towards these refugees, showing a deep-rooted stereotype within them.
There is a high wall separating the lives of refugees and the locals. With many difficult barriers – language, culture, religion, ethnicity – it would be hard for them to break down the walls and to see each other eye to eye. The emotional distance between them making it even harder for people to reach out to refugees and to actually see them as a person — like me and you.
When they come to our countries, they have already left their whole lives and families behind. They left their home and loved ones for a promising future, despite all the uncertainty and difficulties they are facing. In reality, they are welcomed with discrimination, indifference, and inadequate supplies.
We may do not know them that much, but that’s not because they do not exist nor they are invisible. It’s because they have been struggling in silence all this time while living life in inequality.
Now, we are aware that we can’t change the system. But we can still do something else. We can start taking small steps towards helping refugee communities by donating, volunteering, or simply spreading awareness about this issue to others. We can also help them by joining a community that focuses on refugees' issues, such as The Picha Project in Malaysia or Roshan Learning Center in Indonesia.
At the end of the day, the refugee communities want the same things in life as we do. Just like me and you, who crave for nothing more than just freedom, security, happiness, and a better future.