Fri, 31 Jan 2003

Iraqi refugees question fate, appeal to UNHCR

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

An Arab woman wearing a black head scarf cuddled a sleeping 10-year-old girl under the open sky of Jakarta. Along the bustling streets of downtown, dozens of people chatted in Arabic, while some walked around aimlessly in the scorching heat. They looked tired and frustrated.

Passersby raised their eyebrows, wondering what was happening, but looked away with merely a glance. Only a number of security and police officers kept a watchful eye on them.

A banner on the gate read: "We are present here in peace to meet UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)." Another flier in the Indonesian language read: "We gather here as refugees, asking the Indonesian government to help us leave the country immediately."

The banner-bearing crowd are asylum seekers from Iraq. They gathered in front of the UNHCR building to convince the commission to grant them political refugee status.

"We have slept by this road for four days after leaving our last refuge in Situbondo (East Java)," Adel Abdel Rahman, one of the refugees and a Kurdish native of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq, told The Jakarta Post.

He also said that most of his fellow refugees were broke and had to depend on other people's generosity and sympathy for their survival.

"The living cost in Jakarta is very high, and yet we have to depend our lives on aid from others," he said.

He added that all his fellow countrymen were waiting to be granted refugee status so that they would be provided with decent housing and a living allowance.

"The UNHCR will grant the status in three months, so we don't know how are we going to live during that time," he said in dismay.

Abdel Rahman, who left Iraq for political reasons, said that all the Iraqi asylum seekers left their hotel in the East Java town of Situbondo where they were staying after they had clashed with local residents.

"The local people did not seem to like us; they resented the fact that an international organization provided us with hotel rooms and living provisions, and that we were richer than most people in the area," he said, referring to the International Migration Organization (IMO).

He said that after the clash, the group decided to leave the hotel to avoid further conflicts with local residents.

A UNHCR officer in Jakarta, Rosa Sierra, told the Post that the cause of the conflict was the lack of awareness on the part of the refugees to adapt to the local situation.

"Most of them came from the middle and upper classes, but here in Indonesia they have to eat poor-quality bread and rice everyday and receive basic healthcare services," she said.

She explained that they sometimes threw their food onto the street, an attitude which is unacceptable to the local people.

The UN official said all refugees had in fact earlier planned to visit Australia, a country with higher living standards than their native country.

"But now that they are stranded in a country that they don't want to be in, which just adds to their frustration," said Rosa.

Unable to bear the plight of being a homeless refugee in the country, they called on the Indonesian government to help settle their problem.

"As people of the same faith, I ask the Vice President Hamzah Haz to provide a solution to our woes quickly," said Abdel Rahman.