When Differences Disappear

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

A Detainee expressing his content through painting on the wall of his cell

Held in Immigration Detention Centers the fate of asylum seekers and refugees is not much different from that of criminals. They are confined behind iron bars, deprived of their freedom of movement, limited contact to loved ones and with a lack of activities. This situation may last for years without any sign of when this would end. After all, asylum seekers and refugees have not committed any criminal acts. They are just following their hearts in search for freedom, safety, friendship and dignity. In midst the extremely limited situation in detention, a small and modest experience can cherish freedom, compassion, friendship and dignity.

Wisnu Bawana, a staff at one of 13 Indonesian Immigration Detention Center (IDC) is startled when a ball hits his face. He lookslooks around trying to find who has thrown the ball at him. A young detainee just teasingly smiles in front of him. Suspecting that the teenage detainee might be the one having thrown the ball at him, Wisnu chases him. Zaidan, the young detainee, just gives him a big smile and runs away, laughing.

The story may have ended differently if this would have happened in the IDC. But luckily this ‘incident’ happens at a swimming pool in a recreational area. In this clean, blue water of the pool the detainees, guards and several immigration officers are cheerfully playing water-polo. The teams a combination of detainees and immigration officers seem to care little about who wins most of them just enjoy the game by jokingly throwing the ball at their contenders. The atmosphere is relaxed and joyful. No more officers with wide reaching authority, no more security guards with suspicious looking eyes and no more detainees with their sad and depressed looking faces in this playground. Everyone is playing and enjoying the event, becoming Homo Ludens, human-beings who play for fun and joy. It seems that all people in this place are returning to their childhood time, when they play only for one desire: Joy.

That bright Saturday is a day that makes these 20 IDC detainees happy. Accompanied by a number of immigration officers, they enjoy the chance to leave the high walls, iron bars and barbed wires for a few hours. This recreational activity was suggested by the IDC office, which shared its idea with the JRS and IOM. Through a number of coordinating meetings, the IDC office finally gives its recommendation and approval to this activity.

In some of the meetings the IDC office says that this first recreation activity would be treated as an experiment. If all runs well, according to the security procedures, without any detainees trying to escape, the IDC would recommend that this kind of activity should be made routine. But, if any of the detainees try to exploit and misuse this opportunity to escape from the centre there will be no more recreation such as this one.

Thank God, all fears were proven wrong. Results instead were cheerfulness and friendliness with differences disappearing between the IDC staff and detainees. Not only do the detainees and officers jokingly play water polo, they also play together at some other sections of the swimming pool area. The immigration officers do not feel awkward to carry a rubber canoe along with the detainees, climb on the sliding tower and slide down splashing into the pool together with them. They also play human-train, sitting in a row, their hands holding whoever sits in front, hysterically but joyfully shouting when passing through the bends of the slide. The security guards, who first have been standing at different points in the area, carefully watching the detainees, could not withstand the ‘temptation’ and join the group, jumping into the refreshing, blue swimming pool. No more watchers and watched! All of them, no exception, have one only desire: Joy!

After a friendly lunch, one of the detainees gives a speech of gratitude to the IDC, JRS and IOM for the opportunity they have given to him and his friends that day. Other detainees show their thankfulness by hugging the officers and staff members of the immigration detention center who respond with warm gestures. On the way home, the detainees are also given another ‘surprise’ – they are not taken back straight away, but invited to drive around to enjoy the view of the highlands and take photos with the IDC officers.

On the way back to the IDC, Haidar says that even if he and his friends have to return to their locked cells, he admits that today is a very special day for him and others. “Forget detention. Forget everything. Today is a wonderful day”. That day the joy and happiness have destroyed the obstructing divide. We do hope that Indonesia’s laws will increasingly allow for the dismantling of the iron bars in the life of asylum seekers and refugees.

Saefudin Amsa

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