A lifetime in lockdown


The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people around the world into isolation and lockdown, with deleterious effects on mental health. Many people are suffering under the psychological pressures of living restricted lives in limbo, unable to connect with their loved ones, and unsure what the future might hold.

This is my first time experiencing a pandemic. But this situation doesn’t feel new to me. For refugees like myself, isolation and lockdown began when we fled from home.

I’m a 27-year-old Rohingya. In 2013, I fled Myanmar, hoping to seek refuge in Australia. Instead, I was sent to Indonesia, and I have spent the last seven years of my life here in what can only be described as an open prison. I am isolated from my family and from the rest of Indonesian society. I cannot pursue an education, nor can I work. Like many other refugees, I have spent years stranded in endless limbo, with nowhere to go and no prospect of freedom.

There has never been a safe place for me in this world. Wherever I tried to seek safety, I was either locked up in a cell or kept under surveillance, even though I have committed no crime.

As a Rohingya, I have had my freedom of movement limited since birth. I lived as an illegal immigrant in my own country. I was denied citizenship and subjected to persecution and discrimination. I could not travel even within the country. Even if I just wanted to stay over with my neighbours or relatives, I needed permission from the local chairman, or I would be fined heavily or imprisoned. I lived in fear of forced labour and arbitrary arrest. My city, Maungdaw in Rakhine State, was sealed by military troops.

Though I feared for my life in Myanmar, I could at least visit my relatives and go to school. I majored in physics at Sittwe University – my dream was to become a scientist. But I wasn’t able to graduate. When I was 20 years old, just after I’d completed my second year of study, the government incited a massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine state and I fled for my own protection. As a Rohingya, I could not obtain a passport. I had no choice but to cross borders illegally from Myanmar into Thailand, then Malaysia to Indonesia.

I thought that I would be able to seek refuge in Australia with or without a passport as Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. I’d heard that Australia was a compassionate country that offered a second chance to refugees like myself. But when I tried to reach Australia by boat, I was arrested and sent back to Indonesia, where I was locked up in a hotel room with tight security. 

There were around 50 other refugees and asylum seekers in the hotel. A young Rohingya man tried to escape by jumping through the second-floor window, but he was arrested. He was so badly beaten that he died in the hospital a few days later.

In July 2013, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that refugees arriving by boat would never be resettled in Australia. Later that year, the Coalition won government and implemented Operation Sovereign Borders. The impact of this policy goes beyond the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island – it has also manifested through money and political influence in Indonesia, which has indirectly become another detention centre for refugees turned away from Australia. Here, we’re invisible to media and society, and neglected by almost every governmental organisation. We’re locked away, out of sight and out of mind for both Australians and Indonesians.  

After three months’ detention in the hotel, I was transferred to a prison-like detention facility in Manado, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. When the UNHCR came to interview me there, I almost forgot who I was. I was so traumatised that I could not even remember my birthday.

The days blended together there as sunlight could barely penetrate through the walls. It was a claustrophobic experience. I felt like I was in a cave, struggling to breathe. The detention centre was crowded with nearly 1,000 people. There was hardly enough space to lay my head down to rest at night. My only wish was to breathe fresh air and see the sunset after being released.

As Australia is determined to keep refugees marooned to serve as a deterrent to potential asylum seekers, our lives continue to be destroyed as an example. There are nearly 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. Because Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, we were considered illegal immigrants. In 2016, President Jokowi signed a bill recognising refugees’ status but continuing to deny us integration into local society or basic rights. The UNHCR says it could take up to 25 years to find a third country for resettlement, if at all. So they try to persuade us to return to the countries we fled.

At the end of 2014, I was moved to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) community in Makassar, Indonesia, which is funded by the Australian government. We were not allowed to work. We were expressly forbidden from entering into any relationship with locals. Every night, we were put under curfew from 6 pm to 10 am. We could not bring friends to stay over, nor could we visit our friends at night. We were not allowed to drive or to own a vehicle. If we needed to go to the market, we had to pay for transportation out of a monthly food allowance of $70. If I disobeyed any of these rules, I was told that I would be sent back to detention.

With strict rules and no viable solutions on the horizon, many in the IOM community suffered from severe depression, anxiety, stress and difficulty sleeping. Since 2013, I have documented 20 refugees who have died as a result of mental illness and medical neglect, and eight who have died by suicide. Just a few weeks ago, Asif Rizai, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee, took his own life in the Makassar IOM community.

Living in limbo with no hope for even a predestined future, I lost the essence of my childhood at an early age. I am grateful that I am alive today, but we do not live just to survive: human beings are autonomous creatures who have the ability to make a difference. We crave freedom; we want to make something of ourselves in this world. But here in Indonesia, we’re treated as subhuman.

As I began reporting on these human right violations, my life became increasingly difficult. I faced constant threats of detention. Many of my friends were arrested, tortured and detained when we conducted protests. I was lucky enough to avoid arrest, but eventually I had to escape Makassar earlier this year to Jakarta. 

Support from others is the only thing that’s sustained me. Recently, some kind Canadians gave me hope that they could sponsor my resettlement in Canada. Yet I will be deeply saddened to leave behind my fellow refugees, who will be stuck in limbo or compelled to return to their countries where their lives will be once again at risk.

With many millions of people around the world now affected by lockdowns, the world should wake up to the lasting psychological damage that this kind of trauma does to a person. Australia and Indonesia have conspired to keep refugees in a state of permanent despair as punishment for seeking safety. Everyone deserves the right to work, education and movement. Everyone needs social interaction. Refugees deserve protection, freedom, and a future.

JN Joniad

Author: JN Joniad

JN Joniad is a Rohingya journalist and an editor of the archipelago writers collective. He is also an associate producer and the subject of the documentary Freedom Street. As a university student in Myanmar, Joniad was forced to flee into exile. Now living as a refugee in Indonesia, he publishes accounts of refugees searching for safety.

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