Coronavirus increases asylum seeker’s anxieties as wait for resettlement goes on

Coronavirus increases asylum seeker’s anxieties as wait for resettlement goes on

Arash (John) Sedigh with his wife Azam and their five-year-old son Samuel.

Arash Sedigh went to the UN offices in Makassar, Indonesia for more than 250 days in a row last year to plead for his family’s resettlement to be made a priority.

It is approaching seven years since the 42-year-old Iranian Christian convert, who now prefers to be called John, and his wife Azam, 39, claimed asylum there on account of their religious conversion.

Their son, Samuel, who is five and a half, was born in Makassar, and has only known life within the confines of a refugee centre.

In recent years, John has grown increasingly concerned for the emotional and psychological wellbeing of his wife and son, both of whom he says have become “distressed” by their circumstances and have been seen by psychologists, who have recommended that the family’s case be expedited.

But time and again, John’s pleas have been met by a call to be patient and wait.

“Always they say, ‘Just wait. We are waiting for [the office in] Jakarta, we are waiting for their response,’ John told Article18 via Skype this week. “But until now, there is no news.”

John posted photos and videos of his protests on Twitter.

In November, John stopped his daily visits to the UNHCR, after he was advised that it was not helping his case, but five months on and they are still waiting. 

And now John has a new concern: coronavirus.

Indonesia only registered its first case last month, but it is already the Asian country with the highest number of deaths outside China, and there are fears the government’s reaction to the pandemic was too slow, and that the vastly populated country’s poorly equipped healthcare system will be unable to cope.

The city of Makassar, which has a population of nearly one and a half million, has been recognised by the Indonesian government as one of the hotspots of the fast-spreading virus – the first death there was recorded on 19 March – but John says many locals are carrying on as if nothing is happening.

The city’s churches, including John’s, have closed, under government direction, but the mosque across the road from the refugee shelter continues to operate as normal, as does the local shop at which John and the other refugees buy most of their groceries.

And while the International Organization for Migration, which runs the refugee centre, has put up posters in recent days encouraging inhabitants to take all the measures they can to protect themselves, John says that some are taking them more seriously than others and there is only so much the rest can do.

Posters have been put up around the refugee centre in recent days.

John says he is doing all he can – for example through regular use of hand sanitisers, and complying with “social distancing” as much as possible – but that he has little choice but to come into close contact with others when shopping, or in the shared kitchen facilities at the refugee centre, which houses around 60 others: mostly single Afghan men, many of whom continue to mingle together in the communal areas, including the small kitchen.

Azam does most of the family’s cooking in their one-room apartment, but, even so, she must travel regularly to the kitchen to take food from the shared refrigerator and freezer, and to wash-up after cooking.

Meanwhile, John says he is particularly concerned by the free exchange of cash between people at the local shop, in a society in which cash is by far the most common means of payment. He says many locals aren’t washing their hands, nor wearing face masks, and that there are no new regulations in place at the shop to keep people apart. “Body to body contact” is much more usual than social distancing, John says. 

The children still play on the streets outside the shelter, and John says he has found it difficult to persuade them not to continue their games within the shelter’s walls, as has become their custom.

“They don’t know how dangerous the situation is,” he says. “Whenever I see them trying to come inside our accommodation, I try to encourage them, ‘Be careful and try to stay at home, try to wash your hands.’ But they just smile and say, ‘OK,’ and continue playing.”

The local police recently passed by, broadcasting social-distancing advice via a loudspeaker, but John says most locals appear unconcerned and disinclined to follow the rules.

“They say, ‘OK, maybe we die, but someday we are going to die anyway,’” John says. Others told him “Allah will protect us”.

John says he is scared to argue against such beliefs, for fear of inciting anger, and that even the Indonesian government are concerned about how to handle the more radical elements within the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, because they don’t not know how they will react.

Meanwhile, Samuel is holed up inside the family’s one-room apartment, and John is worried about him.

“We try to keep him in this one small room, and we are trying to encourage him to study, but when he finishes his homework, it’s boring for him to stay all the time in the room,” John says, “but we have confirmed that he cannot go out, even for refreshing himself for half an hour, because in the public areas of the shelter we are witnessing that some people are not paying attention [to the rules].”

“He needs a safe environment environment to grow up; this [should be] his golden age, but he cannot focus on his studies. He has received warnings from teachers in the school, because he cannot focus in his lessons; he cannot interact normally; he has always fears, and there are many issues around him, which he is trying by himself to handle…”

John doesn’t finish his point because Samuel is fluent in English and he is afraid of being too open about his concerns while he listens in. But at the same time, in their one-room apartment, as they try to keep him safe from the escalating epidemic, there is nowhere else for him to go.

Indeed, for John and Azam, that’s how it has felt for almost seven years now; only now their world feels even smaller and their need to find a new home, and new hope, even greater.