The illustration for the article by Raphaela Vanya

Fleeing from Violence, Facing Violence: The Challenge of Foreign Female Refugees in Indonesia

Foreign female refugees arriving in Indonesia hope that the country can be a more comfortable temporary dwelling place compared to their war-torn homeland. Sadly, the expectation is yet to be fulfilled as gender-based violence is still rampant. Moreover, the country’s weak legal system is ineffective in protecting the victims.

Trigger Warning: This article covers issues of gender-based violence.

Seven years ago, Nimo fled her homeland in Somalia. She was in her early 20s. 

“In Somalia, domestic violence is a part of daily life. […] There’s nothing that can stop it,” said Nimo, a co-founder of Sisterhood, a community that advocates for foreign female refugees in Indonesia.

She says her life as a single young woman is continuously threatened in Somalia.

At least in the last decade, Somalia has seen unceasing attacks from extremist groups from the separatist areas. The chaos has led to humanitarian crises and bleak economic prospects.

Reports from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Plan International mention that the women in Somalia are categorised as the most vulnerable group when facing gender-based violence. 

Indonesia is a transit country, a temporary dwelling place for the refugees and asylum seekers before they get the permit from the country that will receive them as new citizens. However, no one can predict nor determine the duration of stay in the transit country. On average, a refugee would stay around 8-10 years in Indonesia. So far, the percentage of refugees who have successfully moved to their final country of citizenship is less than 1%.

Upon arriving in Jakarta, Nimo met and made friends with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, and Sudan. She thought living in Indonesia could make her life more comfortable. It was not the case.

Gender-based violence against female refugees is still very rampant. Mostly, the perpetrators are fellow refugees. The violence happens in the domestic area, in romantic relationships, and in friendships.

These cases are hard to tackle because Indonesia’s sexual violence eradication law does not cover the protection and handling of gender-based violence towards female refugees.

Besides, Indonesia has not ratified The 1951 Refugee Convention, so refugees do not have the same protection, access, and rights as Indonesians. They are not even allowed to work. 

Gender-based violence among foreign female refugees in Indonesia has been a joint responsibility between bodies within the United Nations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization on Migration (IOM). They also partner with humanitarian organisations such as Church World Service (CWS), Catholic Relief Service (CRS), and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). 

Those bodies collaborate with local government, ministries, and legal aid bodies, as well as safehouse providers for female refugees who face violence. The service works better in big cities such as Jakarta.

Nimo remembers one particular case that left a mark in her memory. One night in December 2021, a female refugee came to her place to seek protection. 

The woman’s body is full of wounds after her husband beat her. She had fled her home to seek a safe place. Nimo let her stay at her place temporarily. She gave her food and a proper bed to rest.

“I have called the organisation that was supposed to give a safe space and take care of this case. But there was still no response after two weeks,” she says.

Ultimately, the husband located the woman. He came there and promised never to do her any more harm. The woman believed him and came home with him. Nimo regretted the decision, but she was powerless.

It was not the only time she was visited by women seeking refuge after facing gender-based violence.

She remembered the first time she handled gender-based violence among refugees in 2017. It took months until the case was properly handled. The experience started her journey in aiding female refugees facing gender-based violence.

“It’s become normal for me. I met the women suffering from domestic violence by their family, by their husband, maybe the other men of the refugee community, but each case is different. Some people want to report or reach CWS and UNHCR, others don’t.” 

Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.
Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

According to Nimo, victims usually face physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

“We also have ‘cultural violence’. For example, when a woman decides to change her looks by not wearing hijab, she would be shamed by the community. Her social media accounts would be bombarded with hate comments,” Nimo says.

Nimo explains that the cultural factor also becomes one of the triggers of gender-based violence. She and several friends from Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iran grew up in a culture where women are not allowed to have romantic relationships. If a woman was caught having a boyfriend for more than three consecutive months with no plans to get married, the woman would be an outcast.

Some victims want to report their cases. Many choose to be silent. 

Victims who make the reports, Nimo says, wish that UNHCR would help them by providing safehouses, financial aid, and certainty for their departure to the next country. 

Some victims also wish to bring the case to court. However, this is almost impossible because Indonesia’s legal system does not recognise female refugees.

“Communication is the worst,” says Nimo, describing the main challenge in tackling gender-based violence among refugees in Indonesia.

In the past four years, victims have mentioned that no one answered when they tried to call the UNHCR hotline for violence cases. Even when their call was picked up, they were only given male translators. For victims, sharing the details of the violence they suffered to men is taboo.

Not to mention that victims are left haunted with scepticism. “They thought, who will guarantee that my life will be okay if I share my story? No one can guarantee that.”

The victims who do not wish to report their cases want Nimo to provide safehouses and talk to UNHCR so that the organisation can help them better.

The Complicated Flow of Case Handling

According to UNHCR, there are 12,616 refugees in Indonesia as per November 2022, with 27% of them being women. They are scattered in several cities, such as Jakarta, Aceh, Medan, Tanjung Pinang, Pekanbaru, and Makassar.

The refugees live in various places. Some live in shelters provided by IOM; some in empty buildings provided by the government; others in various kinds of settlements in the city.

UNHCR and IOM give monthly allowances to the refugees. Unmarried refugees are given the allowance individually, while those with family are given the allowance package for the whole family.

Up until today, Dyah Fariani, Senior Protection Assistant (Community-based protection) UNHCR, says that UNHCR cannot share data about violence experienced by female refugees.

“This is extremely sensitive information. It is confidential, even for our internal members,” Dyah says.

Information that UNHCR can share is about the kind of aid given to victims who wish to report a case. They work with CRS in creating a hotline for reports on gender-based violence. CRS is responsible for receiving reports, assessing, and reporting the analysis to the UNHCR. Afterwards, the UNHCR team gives recommendations on case treatment in accordance with the victim’s needs through CRS staff.

CRS, as the first party that receives reports from the victim, is also responsible for providing translators and accompaniment to the victims, says Griselda, Protection and Community Mobilization Assistant of CRS.

“We are not yet able to promptly respond to reports from the hotline due to the lack of human resources. Too much to handle,” Griselda says. 

Since the opening of a special division to handle gender-based violence in 2019, CRS has handled at least one new case per month. There is only one person that handles ongoing cases, newly reported cases, as well as emergency cases.

Additionally, CRS also has to face bureaucracy. When a victim needs a safehouse, CRS is not able to give immediate access. 

“We have to propose to UNHCR first. There are procedures to follow. Therefore, when there is an emergency, the people who can give immediate assistance are those closest to them,” Griselda says.

This also poses another challenge as many of the refugees are not equipped with adequate knowledge about gender-based violence. Additionally, not all refugees know how to report a case when it occurs.

Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.
Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

There are a number of other organisations that are responsible for taking care of victims. CWS handles the victim’s psychosocial and medical needs. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice (LBH APIK) and SUAKA give legal advocacy. When a victim needs a safehouse, UNHCR will delegate to the Victim and Witness Protection Office (LPSK) or Rumah Bulan. 

LBH APIK in Jakarta faces many challenges in tackling these cases. Since 2018, the institution has received 5-10 reports of gender-based violence each year from refugees. Most of the cases are forwards from CRS and IOM. 

Many of these cases are domestic violence and online attacks. The challenge already starts the moment the victim steps into the office of LBH APIK Jakarta.

“Language barrier. CRS and IOM can come with translators, but this means we translate into several languages: English-Farsi-Indonesian. The process becomes lengthy. It becomes more difficult when the refugee comes alone,” said Husna, a lawyer at LBH APIK Jakarta who handles violence among refugees.

Additionally, they also have a lengthy legal process. According to Husna’s experience, a case can take a duration of two years, and only a handful will ever see the court.

If a victim wishes to take their case to court, they would need a special push from other organisations, including The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), so that the case can be processed. More often than not, the process is halted midway.

There are many excuses: Police would state a lack of evidence; there would be a lack of witness; psychological assessment would be deemed invalid; and so on.

“[The process] is lengthy and draining. The victim has to make multiple journeys to the police station, to the hospital, to the psychologist. It needs time and money, at least for the transport. Plus, the refugees are not included in the category of people who have the rights to legal aid (whose case cost can be paid by the government),” Husna said.

All of these make the refugee community an important part of their life. The community also plays an imperative role in the healing process during the time the victim rests in the safehouse.

Mitsalina, the founder of Rumah Bulan, the safehouse that has become a reference since 2021, says that she has run out of ideas to prevent victims from receiving friends and families in the safehouse. The visits can be very risky because the information regarding the safehouse’s location can reach the perpetrators. Violence can happen again, which also negatively affects other victims in the safehouse.

“It happened to us many times. I was very disappointed. I thought CRS and UNHCR had given education about the rules of living in the safehouse,” says Mitsalina.

Apart from the existing challenges, Nimo says that many female refugees actually wish to be financially independent so that they can live far away from the perpetrators. They would need bigger financial support to afford effective healthcare facilities and safehouses.

The wish is almost impossible to come true. UNHCR already has a rigid system of financial support. They could not spend another penny for domestic violence cases, which forced the wives to flee.

The number of safehouses is also limited. Besides Rumah Bulan, UNHCR has also appointed LPSK to provide safehouses. However, Dyah says, bureaucracy has pushed many refugees away from the facility. 

These challenges in treating gender-based violence ultimately cause Nimo to find a system of protection for her community.

Empowering a Community

“All of these destroy my mental health. I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking, how can I help the victims?” Nimo says.

Her journey in assisting victims took her and her two friends, an Iranian and an Afghan, to create Sisterhood in 2018.

In the community, they designed 13 classes to help foreign female refugees to protect themselves and their mental health.

The classes offer painting, digital literacy, films and books, public speaking, embroidery, jewellery making, and knitting. They also offer English and Bahasa Indonesia classes. Additionally, Sisterhood also delivers webinars on mental health and reproductive health. There is also education on gender-based violence. 

“Starting from the most simple one, they have to understand which one is violence, which one is not.”

Sisterhood receives funds and support from external parties. In 2021 they received grant funding from Women’s Fund Asia. The fund was used to collaborate with LBH APIK and SUAKA to advocate for gender-based cases against female refugees. 

In 2022, 275 female refugees joined the many activities organised by Sisterhood. In 2023, Sisterhood aspires to conduct more activities to support gender-based violence victims. Sisterhood also hopes they can get help to process gender-based violence emergency cases, including in the form of money, safehouses, and healthcare facilities, which the victims can access right after they report their cases.

“We want our friends to be self-sufficient. We want to help the mothers to keep their well-being with the available classes,” Nimo says.

She realises that the classes are still far from ideal. Nimo says there should be a solid system to handle such cases.

“Ideally, every victim can come to the hotline easily and get good service. Ideally, they can come to the nearest hospital to get the appropriate service without having to wait for a long time,” Nimo says.

In the future, Nimo wants the Sisterhood to be able to collaborate with lawyers and mental health practitioners so that the community can be more optimal in helping the refugees who experience abuse.

Nimo spends her day designing classes for Sisterhood, as well as writing proposals to get more funds from international bodies to ensure the sustainability of Sisterhood. She also motivates foreign female refugees to join the classes.

“I keep myself busy because if I focus on reality, I can get very depressed,” Nimo says.

Sisterhood tries to collaborate with bodies such as JRS and LBH APIK to give education and protection towards victims of gender-based violence. 

Gading Gumilang, Senior Legal Services Officer JRS, says that the treatment for cases of gender-based violence among female refugees have never seen a bright end.

“The most realistic hope in this context is to allow the female refugees to enter the existing system. When they file a report, just disregard their refugee status. See them as victims,” Gading says.

The long and winding road towards an ideal treatment for gender-based violence is an ongoing journey. Nimo hopes, “The Indonesian government will integrate the foreign female refugees into the existing legal system in this country.”

What Can We Do?

  • Support Sisterhood, a community that supports female refugees, by visiting their website and Instagram account @sisterhood_community_center. You also can be a part of the Sisterhood community by donating your time as teachers or trainers, or giving monetary donations through their official website. 
  • Give support to Rumah Bulan so that it can continue its function as safehouse by donating through Kita Bisa. If there’s anyone around you that needs a safehouse facility, please contact Rumah Bulan through email [email protected]. For updates on Rumah Bulan, follow their Twitter account @BulanRumah. 
  • Support LBH APIK Jakarta by buying their merchandise through LBH APIK official Tokopedia page.
  • Share this article with your friends and family and discuss your concerns with them.
  • Join New Naratif events to discuss this issue and join the network with other people who want to fight for better change.
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