Desperate Afghan refugee sets himself on fire in Indonesia

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Chain fence with the silhouette of a refugee couple.
Chain fence with the silhouette of a refugee couple.
leolintang via Getty Images

  • Afghan refugee Ahmad Shah set himself alight outside the Indonesian Organisation for Migration building in Medan.
  • He had been waiting five years to be permanently resettled. 
  • Since 2016, at least 13 Afghan refugees have died by suicide in Indonesia. 

Afghan refugee Ezat Najafi sensed something was wrong when his friend and fellow refugee, Ahmad Shah, began to behave erratically in front of the Indonesian Organisation for Migration (IOM) building in the Indonesian city of Medan.

For a month, a group of Afghan refugees — some of whom lived in limbo in Indonesia for almost a decade — had been staging a 24-hour protest in a makeshift camp in front of the IOM office, sleeping in tents pitched in the forecourt.

The IOM is responsible for the care of refugees while they are in Indonesia awaiting resettlement in a third country.

"I tried to save him and talk to him," Najafi, 30, told Al Jazeera. He came to Indonesia in 2015.

"I said, 'Please don’t do this.' Suddenly he poured petrol on his clothes and took out two lighters, one in each hand. I tried to talk to him and told him to be patient, but he didn’t listen."

Shah, 22, probably felt that he had been patient enough.

Having travelled to Indonesia as a teenager in 2016, Shah has been waiting for five years to be permanently resettled. The uncertainty, coupled with a long-term health issue, caused him to fall into a depression, his friends told Al Jazeera.

READ | The real reason European countries are upset about the US's withdrawal from Afghanistan

Shah decided to set himself on fire. Najafi did not realise that anything was amiss until he saw his friend, clearly agitated, pacing in front of the building and shouting incoherently.

An amateur video shot at the scene circulated widely on Indonesian social media shows what happened next: Najafi and several other refugees tried to reason with Shah as he flicked the lighters in his hands and ignited his petrol-soaked clothes.

Flames engulfed his upper body as Najafi lunged towards Shah in a desperate attempt to help him before being beaten back by the heat. Finally, a security guard rushed to Shah with a fire extinguisher and doused the flames.

"He was on fire for maybe 20 seconds," another refugee, 25-year-old Mohammad Reza, told Al Jazeera.

When the flames subsided, Shah’s arms and face had been badly burned. He was reportedly taken across the street to a private hospital. Still, He was moved to one of Medan’s public hospitals on the same day by the IOM, according to his friends who said that the organisation did not want to pay for his medical care.

Raising their voice

Since 2016, at least 13 Afghan refugees have died by suicide in Indonesia. They had been waiting to be resettled for between six and 11 years.

When contacted for comment by Al Jazeera, the IOM declined to answer specific questions, but in a statement, said that it was "deeply concerned about the incident that happened in Medan."

It added that it coordinated with the hospital and related parties to care for the injured.

"IOM will continue to provide health, psychosocial, and protection programmes to support all refugees in Medan and across the country," the statement said.

However, according to the refugees, the IOM did not come to speak with them following the incident and has not provided adequate support in recent years.

"That’s why we left our usual accommodation provided by IOM and made this camp. We want to raise our voices," Reza told Al Jazeera.

He added:

We have been staying here for years and nothing has happened. We are stuck in the middle of nowhere at this precarious moment in time. We are all suffering from psychological problems.

Rima Shah Putra, the director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO that provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera that one of the main obstacles for refugees in Indonesia is a lack of definitive answers about when they will be resettled in a third country.

"While they are still in transit in Indonesia, there are not many things they are allowed to do," he said. "This can cause great stress for refugees and asylum seekers." Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or the subsequent 1967 Refugee Protocol, which allows for permanent resettlement in a host country.

This means that refugees can stay only temporarily while they await resettlement elsewhere, usually in countries like the United States or Canada.

And while they wait in Indonesia, they are subject to strict rules.

Everyday activities such as working, owning a car or motorcycle, travelling outside city limits, or going to university are prohibited. The IOM provides accommodation, usually in old hotels, and provides an allowance for food and essentials. Each adult refugee receives 1 250 000 Indonesian rupiahs ($86) a month, and each child gets 500 000 Indonesian rupiahs ($34).

'Like prisoners'

Over time, the lack of freedom takes a toll.

"Why do they give us refugee cards? Why do they recognise us as refugees if they treat us this way? We are like prisoners. Prisoners also get food, water, and a place to live, too," said Irfan Ali, who left Afghanistan in 2014 when he was still at university and is now 28.

Indonesia had more than 13,000 refugees in May 2021, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and almost all the Afghan refugees are Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic group who are predominantly Shia Muslims and have been persecuted for decades in Sunni-majority Afghanistan.

Many watched their already remote chance of return evaporate after the Taliban seized power in August following the withdrawal of US troops.

But even as the number of refugees climbs — in 2020, the number of refugees worldwide rose for the ninth year in a row to 20.7 million — permanent resettlement has become increasingly difficult.

READ | Taliban takeover: Afghan babies die of hunger as winter descends

In recent years, recipient countries have cut quotas, and last year only 34 400 refugees were resettled globally — a 20-year low according to the refugee agency.

The coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse. The UNHCR found that 160 countries had closed their borders during the pandemic in 2020, with 99 states making no exceptions for people seeking protection.

As a result, more and more refugees, such as the ones at the makeshift camp in Medan, have found that transiting to a third country can mean decades in a legal — and literal — no man’s land.

“We need a strategy that is more sustainable and productive while refugees are in these potentially long transit periods," Geutanyoe Foundation’s Putra said. "The most crucial issue at the moment is giving refugees and asylum seekers the right to work."

Having suffered third-degree burns over much of his upper body, Ahmad Shah is still in a severe condition in hospital, where his friends are trying to visit him in shifts to provide support.

"Refugees are fed up with this unfortunate situation," Najafi told Al Jazeera.

"At least the fate of a prisoner is clear, and they will be released after spending a certain amount of time in prison. Our situation has been unclear for a very long time."

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