On September 30, 2021, I landed in Toronto, Canada. For the first time in my life, I felt freedom and experienced the goodness of the world when a group of kind Canadians met me at the airport. They wrapped a Canadian flag around me and gave me a hat with a maple leaf on it and said, “Welcome home”. I learned later that this day was the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. I also happen to be a genocide survivor, but in Myanmar, and a survivor of the inhuman treatment I faced as a refugee in Indonesia.
In Myanmar, as a member of the Rohingya minority, I was considered an illegal immigrant and was denied my right to citizenship; I couldn’t even travel in my own country. Most of my basic rights have been violated. In 2013, when the Myanmar government instigated the massacre of the Rohingya, I was doing my second year of physics at Sittwe University in the capital of Rakhine State, where almost a thousand Rohingya were killed by Rakhine’s vigilantes and the army. I was forced to leave my country and sought refuge in Australia as it was a signatory country to the 1951 UN refugee convention promising to protect displaced people.
I then risked my life by illegally crossing the borders from Thailand, Malaysia to Indonesia because I was not allowed to hold a passport. However, I faced a terrible situation in Indonesia; Australia, the country where I expected to find refuge and peace, made me hostage to its policy of deterrence.
In mid-2013, I boarded a boat with 50 other asylum seekers and sailed overnight to try to reach Australia. However, we couldn’t because we were stopped before we reached land. We were locked in hotel rooms for 24 hours in Jakarta.
One night, along with other Rohingyas, I tried to escape from the hotel through the toilet window. We were crawling on the roof of the neighbor’s house next to the hotel, but suddenly Kolimullah, a 21-year-old Rohingya and one of the refugees escaping from the hotel, fell off the roof. He was beaten by the locals; they then handed him over to an immigration officer who beat him again. Later in the hospital, he died. We were beaten and locked up again. After three months, some of us were transferred to a real detention center in South Sulawesi, in Manado.
When I arrived at the detention center, I was shocked to see hundreds of other refugees from different countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran and Iraq, and many more who had been detained for four or five years or more while trying to reach Australia. In May 2015, after writing many emails to agencies and organizations, I was lucky to be released. I did not know at the time that this “release” was just a simple transfer to an open prison, the community house of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Makassar.
In the IOM accommodation, I was watched by the security forces 24 hours a day. We could not go 20 kilometers away from our accommodation, nor spend the night outside. The curfew was from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. These policies were enforced with penalties to ensure that refugees who broke the rules were returned to detention. A sign at the gate warned locals to keep their distance from refugees and ensured we remained isolated from the rest of Indonesian society. Even love was forbidden and we were not allowed to have romantic relationships with the locals.
In 2013, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd established a Sovereign Border Operation and announced that refugees who arrived or attempted to arrive by boat after July 2013 would no longer be settled in Australia and would be detained or deported. The intent of Australian border policies is to arrest and detain refugees and keep them stranded in Indonesia until they accept voluntary repatriation; thus preventing them from traveling to Australia by ship.
As a Rohingya, it was impossible to return to Myanmar because the genocide against my people was still ongoing – by 2018 over a million people had fled to Bangladesh. On the other hand, Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and denies local integration and basic refugee rights. So I couldn’t rebuild my life in Indonesia. I was not allowed to work, study or even travel within the country. My UNHCR card is not accepted by any government agency or for simple things like opening a bank account.
My only hope was that UNHCR would help me resettle in third countries like the United States and Canada. For five years, I saw no sign of hope. In 2017, we refugees staged our first protest of around 50 people right outside the UNHCR office in Makassar. We demanded resettlement in a third country and continued to protest intermittently, but to no avail. Many of my fellow refugees were arrested.
I became a key police target as I led protests and exposed our situation to international media including Al Jazeera and BBC Indonesia and many others in Australia and elsewhere. As I became recognized as a journalist and activist, my life became more difficult. The police and immigration authorities threatened me with detention or imprisonment if I did not stop my activism and writing.
At the end of 2019, a government spokesperson called a meeting with me and other refugee activists at the GAHARA hotel in Makassar. He asked “What do the refugees from Indonesia want?” I replied, “We are human beings and we need our human rights.” He told us that Indonesia is not a signatory country to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and therefore was not obliged to respect the rights of refugees. He offered us a choice: either the status quo or we have to leave the country. He warned us against harsh measures if the demonstrations continue.
I was told that I couldn’t stay in Indonesia if I continued to protest and write about immigration and the government. I had planned to flee to Malaysia, but that would have meant paying around $2,000, which I didn’t have.
In 2020, the only option I had was to either return to my country or be detained. That’s when my friend, Stephen Watt, a Canadian refugee advocate and co-founder of Northern Lights Canada, contacted me and said, “I got you sponsors in Canada. I felt relieved and was able to dream about my future again, but it would take me at least a year before I could resettle in Canada, and I was not safe in my current situation.
In February 2021, I went out with an Indonesian friend, but I was late getting back into the accommodation, which was already closed. We decided to stay in a hotel for the night, but I was detained and taken to an unknown location by plainclothes officers at midnight. They interrogated me for two hours, dropped me off at my accommodation, and told me to pack my things because the immigration officers would come and take me to detention in the morning. I quickly booked a flight online and escaped to the capital of Jakarta. I was cut off from IOM facilities and had to fend for myself. It wasn’t easy, but my writer and foreign friends somehow helped me survive. Finally, I received a call that my flight to Canada was scheduled for September 29, 2021.
Today, thanks to Canada and these kind Canadians, I have the chance to have a second life. However, nearly 14,000 refugees are still stranded in Indonesia. So I see freedom as an opportunity to advocate more effectively for them and for refugees around the world. I strongly encourage Canadian and Australian citizens to join the changemakers who bring hope by sponsoring vulnerable refugees. UNHCR reported that, typically, less than 1% of the 20.7 million refugees worldwide under UNHCR’s mandate are resettled. It is also possible that the Canadian model of community sponsorship of refugees will be adopted by other countries, an initiative that would greatly enhance the hope of refugee resettlement.