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Refugees in Indonesia selling sex to survive

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Homeless mother-of-three, Nimo, fled to Indonesia from Somalia after Islamists killed her family, but with prostitution as the only way to survive, she tearily says her life in Jakarta is “much harder” than her war-torn homeland.

Indonesia has traditionally been a transit nation for asylum seekers but in recent months the UNHCR has been meeting with refugees to tell them they’ll probably never be resettled somewhere else.

That means people such as Nimo face the prospect of spending much longer in the country than they first anticipated. And, for many women, it means working as they’d never imagined – in the sex trade.

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Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre spokesman Daniel Webb says the suffering of refugees on our Australia’s doorstep exposes the cruelty of the government’s obsession with so-called deterrence.

“The people our government secretly turns back or frightens away don’t just vanish off the face of the earth – they’re being forced to suffer elsewhere,” he tells AAP.

Nimo, a 32-year-old Somalian refugee, was forced into hiding after the local refugee community discovered she was working as a prostitute.

Some in the conservative Muslim neighbourhood threatened her harm for betraying Islam’s teachings.

The homeless mother says she’s ashamed of the work and is often beaten by men.

“I would like to stop but I have no options,” Nimo tells AAP.

“If I don’t there will be no food for my family.”

Nimo has fallen through the aid safety net.

Some two-thirds of the 13,800 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia are dependent on aid or live in government-run immigration detention centres, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

They’re not allowed to work or access social security.

Many sleep in the streets near Jakarta’s already-full immigration detention centre or queue – day after day – at the UNHCR office seeking help.

Others drift from one boarding house to the next begging for food. Some sleep on the steps of a local mosque.

“I could never have imagined this life before,” Nimo says. “There is no hope. I have children and I am a prostitute. This is a really bad life. It’s much harder than Somalia.”

Nimo fled Somalia with her children after Islamists stoned her younger sister to death and then turned their guns on the rest of her family. She was shot during one attack.

Her 10-day journey through Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, and across the Malacca Strait, ended after a two-day bus ride to the Indonesian capital in 2015.

Her appeals for help from NGOs and the UNHCR have been refused.

During a recent interview – to discuss her sex work – no assistance was offered. Instead, she was lectured about breaking local laws, and the health risks of prostitution.

UNHCR Indonesia representative Thomas Vargas says recent humanitarian emergencies – such the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh – mean money earmarked for Indonesia is being redirected.

“When there are those types of flashpoints, that’s where the limited funding the UNHCR has globally goes,” he tells AAP.

For refugees in Indonesia, aid is now even harder to come by.

“You have limited funding and you have to help the neediest. That’s the harsh reality. It’s a very tough situation,” Vargas says.

At night refugee women living on the street risk sexual violence.

Refugee Suad, 27, lives in a tight network of laneways near Jakarta’s central shopping district.

The Somalian says men regularly try to force refugee women to go with them for sex.

“When we sleep on the street, West African businessman come to this area. They threaten us and touch us and we are powerless to stop them,” she tells AAP.

“If you don’t say yes they say they can beat you. But I say no, I’m a Muslim, I can’t do it. I am hungry and I want money, but I can’t do that.”

Fear of being labelled a prostitute or shunned causes many women to hide their abuse.

Suad’s family was killed by a bomb in Mogadishu. She says she was abducted, raped and held captive by militants.

After she escaped a local mosque raised the money needed to pay people smugglers.

Suad says in Somalia rape victims are often accused of being prostitutes and are sent away so as not to shame their family or community.

But now, out of desperation, she’s now considering going with men.

“When you don’t have food, when you don’t have shelter, life becomes very hard and that is the only option,” she says.

Mr Vargas says “survival sex” is common among refugees who don’t receive aid or have family to protect them.

“When you are not able to make a living you resort, unfortunately, to these types of survival techniques and that’s a risk refugees have here,” he admits.

Asylum seekers and refugees across the archipelago are protesting their treatment.

But the fact is the UNHCR deals with 65.6 million refugees and forcibly displaced people globally.

The crisis is unlike any seen since World War II, according to Mr Vargas. It’s stretched aid budgets and led to tougher immigration policies in key resettlement nations.

US President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and Australia’s policy of refusing refugees from Indonesia if they arrived after mid-2014 are clear examples, he says.

It’s created “unpredictability in the (resettlement) system” and left refugees stranded.

Immigration policies based on deterrence and criminalisation – rather than protection and human rights – came under the spotlight at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March.

UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer says government policies – rather than criminal activity, corruption and dangerous travel – are the major cause of abuses inflicted on refugees.

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