Freedom Street: A Documentary Journey into the Australian Border policy

By Alfred Pek and JN Joniad
Courtesy of Freedom Street Documentary

On 16 July 2018, I returned to my home country of Indonesia after being away for nearly a decade. I arrived into a hot and dusty Makassar as I headed towards the refugee accommodations. When I arrived at the address, I was greeted by my refugee friends at the front of their dreary, cramped, repurposed student hostel where a family occupies a single tiny room.

I wasn’t allowed to go inside the accommodation. A sign outside hanging on the gate read: “This is an immigration detention centre for foreigners.” There was a security guard on standby, but because of my Pan-Asian appearance, I could pretend to be one of the Hazara refugees. Joniad, a resident and friend, told security that I was his refugee friend and he hurriedly guided me to his room to settle down for some filming.

I first discovered the situation, in which refugees are stranded indefinitely in Indonesia, in 2016, two years after my accidental involvement in the refugee advocacy space and my work in video journalism. Eventually, after 2 years of further research into the topic, I uncovered the core of these policies. I was ready and finally able to develop my documentary in early 2018.

Initially, I was not sure what to name this project. The idea came to me after I asked for my friend’s address, and it was then that I discovered the biggest irony of it all. The street where the refugees live is called “Jalan Perintis Kemerdekaan”, which translates from Indonesian as Freedom Street. I was shocked that none of my friends were aware of this. Dismayed and disheartened, I explained the translation to them, further emphasising the freedoms that had been taken from them.

“Indonesia is where I end up in limbo and lose my hope for the future. This is the country where I suffered most both emotionally and mentally and it is a continuation of a long-term suffering, where freedom is the long-destined hope. We’re living in Freedom Street, but we are actually living in an open prison.” says Joniad, a 27-year-old Rohingya refugee turned journalist stuck in Indonesia.

In the residence, some large posters on the walls inside outlined the rules and restrictions refugees must obey. Non-adherence to those rules would get them sent back to detention. A strict curfew was implemented between 10 pm to 6 am; they couldn’t visit their friends nor receive guests. They also couldn’t leave Makassar without permission or even attend a rally to voice their rights outside the shelters. They were also barred from personal vehicle ownership which leaves them reliant on public transportation.

Rules of Conduct poster in refugee accomodation

These people fled war and genocide, and they are being punished for simply seeking safety. Every word and story conveyed by Joniad, Ashfaq, and especially Azizah (her story brought me to tears), had a profound effect on me. I was guided through their journey of suffering and hardship; the distress is palpable and even now just thinking about these appalling conditions disturbs me. But, eventually, I began to understand what it’s like for these thousands of lost souls stranded in Indonesia with zero rights.

“In detention, the police took away my passports, money, bags and my mobile phone; they locked me up for a full seven months in a single room. I could contact no-one, not even my family. I was locked up for 24 hours a day, unknown to anyone outside (of these prison’s walls). As a result, I would have committed suicide if my Bangladeshi immigrant friend who were in the room with me, had not stopped me”, says Ashfaq Husssain, a 23-year-old Pakistani refugee who fled his country in 2013, due to religious persecution. He is now confined in IOM accommodation in Makassar.

Ashfaq in Manado Detention Centre, 2014

Indonesia has yet to sign the UN Refugee Convention and has denied refugees’ basic human rights. Refugees in Indonesia are barred from studying, working, travelling beyond city limits, marrying freely, and contributing to Indonesian society. As someone who had the privilege to become an Australian citizen, this is something I cannot fathom. How can my current home country, that I give allegiance to, incentivise my former home country to commit such cruel acts against fellow human beings? Around 14000 refugees are stuck in limbo in Indonesia with a choice of facing deaths at home, or an uncertain future indirectly as a result of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Border policy.

“This hellish situation does not happen naturally; rather, created by politics and politicians. Their very fundamental essence was supposed to serve the people. Instead, they are destroying these innocent human beings by leaving them just barely surviving, but not living”, Joniad adds.

When I first saw Joniad, he was trapped in limbo just like everyone else, and about to give up. He was a university student who fled genocide in Myanmar in 2013. He is one of the most educated and skilled refugees in the area and has a large variety of books in his room and a desktop PC which he uses to study online. Since I met him, he has become a well-known writer and journalist. He has been exposing the struggle of refugees in Indonesia and has been published in several popular media outlets including Al Jazeera, SBS and Buzzfeed

Joniad, in Makassar, studying for his online university course

It’s often dangerous, expensive and illegal for refugees to leave their home country. The lucky ones have the money to get a fake passport. But some don’t even have citizenship. This forces many of them to travel illegally. Most refugees currently stuck in Indonesia were Australia-bound and they had no choice but to travel by boat. However, since 2013, Australia has been turning back all boats carrying refugees whose goal is to seek asylum in Australia. Additionally, then Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison announced that refugees registered with UNHCR after July 1st, 2014 would never be resettled in Australia.

“These are anti-democratic policies. They are lacking in transparencies. They are lacking in accountability. They do not subscribe to the principle of proportionality. They are highly expensive to the taxpayer as well. And most importantly, they are harmful to people”, said Dr. Amy Nethery, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Policy Studies at Deakin University who is featured in Freedom Street.

We have faced many challenges in creating this project. This particular issue is one that is not always at the forefront of the public’s perception of the refugee crisis, and so has been difficult to pitch to local production companies. As a result, the project has been mostly self-funded, and the directing, filming and producing has largely been done by myself and a small team of colleagues who volunteer in their very limited time. In this documentary, I wanted to illuminate the journey of three refugees to examine the impact of Australia’s policies. Joniad, Azizah, and Ashfaq were hoping to travel through Indonesia in order to apply for asylum in Australia, but Australia has shut its doors on refugees.

Azizah in Makassar in 2019

“I was born as a refugee and am still living as a refugee for my entire life. Beggars are still lucky because they have citizenship. But us, we are like a ball. We are just kicked here and there, if we are not wanted here (by these people), they will kick us again” said Nur Azizah, a 19-year-old stateless refugee mother stuck in Makassar, Indonesia. She was born in Malaysia into a stateless family with no identity. Now, she is married to another refugee and they have their first child who is also growing up stateless.

I want to use my privilege as an Australian citizen and stand up for those who are less fortunate, whilst encouraging and inspiring others to be part of the solution. Aside from the billions of dollars spent running detention centres across Manus and Nauru, Australia has spent around 400 million dollars to keep those who are trying to find refuge within its borders from entering the country. But nobody will truly know the total cost of Australia’s policies, least of all the taxpayer who is unknowingly sponsoring the cruel and unjust treatment of thousands of people who are fighting for their survival and their future.

Pictured from Left to Right: Ashfaq, Joniad, Azizah, and Alfred

The refugees’ testimonies, in conjunction with experts’ insights, paint a sombre image that can push us to work toward a humane solution to this problem which is hidden from view from Australians and Indonesians. Through the cooperation of these two neighbouring countries we can find a way to save thousands from hopelessness while not wasting the taxpayer’s money on the suffering of others.

“Australia needs to correct these policies first and fix the wrongs that we’ve done, and then Asian states need to step up and enact their own legal (refugee protection) framework in the context that suits their way”, says Dr Carly Gordyn, ANU associate for Australia’s Bilateral Relations & Cooperation on Asylum Policy and featured in Freedom Street.

As Australians, we need to uphold our “Fair Dinkum” reputation as a nation. As an Indonesian, I also want to educate more of my fellow Indonesians who are ill-informed about the dire situation that is happening within their borders and campaign for improved conditions and more rights for those who are stuck there.

Freedom Street is currently in production and raising funds to complete the film. Tax-deductible donations can be made at the Documentary Australia Foundation website.