Afghan refugee Ezat Najafi sensed something was wrong when his friend and fellow refugee, Ahmad Shah, began to be-have erratically in front of the Indonesian Organization for Migration (IOM) building in the Indonesian city of Medan.
For a month, a group of Af-ghan refugees — some of whom have been living in limbo in Indonesia for almost a decade — had been staging a 24-hour protest in a make-shift camp in front of the IOM office, sleeping in tents pitched in the forecourt.
The IOM is responsible for the care of refugees while they are in Indonesia awaiting re-settlement in a third country.
“I tried to save him and talk to him,” Najafi, 30, told Al Jazeera. He came to Indone-sia in 2015.
“I said, ‘Please don’t do this’. Suddenly he poured petrol on his clothes and took out two lighters, one in each hand. I tried to talk to him and told him to be patient but he didn’t listen.”
Shah, 22, probably felt that he had been patient enough.
Having travelled to Indonesia as a teenager in 2016, Shah has been waiting for five years to be permanently resettled, and the uncertainty, coupled with a long-term health issue, caused him to fall into a de-pression, his friends told me-dia.
Shah decided to set himself on fire, and Najafi did not real-ise that anything was amiss until he saw his friend, clearly agitated, pacing in front of the building and shouting inco-herently.
An amateur video shot at the scene that circulated widely on Indonesian social media shows what happened next: Najafi and several other refu-gees tried to reason with Shah as he flicked the lighters in his hands and ignited his petrol-soaked clothes.
Flames engulfed his upper body as Najafi lunged towards Shah in a desperate attempt to help him, before being beaten back by the heat. Fi-nally, a security guard rushed to Shah with a fire extin-guisher and doused the flames.
“He was on fire for maybe 20 seconds,” another refugee, 25-year-old Mohammad Reza, told media.
When the flames subsided, Shah’s arms and face had been badly burned. He was reportedly taken across the street to a private hospital, but was moved to one of Medan’s public hospitals on the same day by the IOM, according to his friends who said that the organisation did not want to have to pay for his medical care.
Since 2016, at least 13 Af-ghan refugees have died by suicide in Indonesia. They had been waiting to be resettled for between six and 11 years.
Rima Shah Putra, the director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO that provides educa-tion and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera that one of the main obstacles for refugees in Indonesia is a lack of definitive answers about when they will be resettled in a third country.
Like many countries in South-east Asia, Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or the subsequent 1967 Refugee Protocol, which allows for permanent reset-tlement in a host country.
This means that refugees are allowed to stay only on a tem-porary basis while they await resettlement elsewhere, usu-ally in countries like the United States or Canada.
And while they wait in Indone-sia, they are subject to strict rules.
Indonesia had more than 13,000 refugees in May 2021, according to the United Na-tions High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and al-most all the Afghan refugees are Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic group who are predominantly Shia Mus-lims and have been perse-cuted for decades in Sunni-majority Afghanistan.
Many watched their already remote chance of return evaporate after the Taliban seized power in August follow-ing the withdrawal of US troops.
But even as the number of refugees climbs — in 2020, the number of refugees worldwide rose for the ninth year in a row to 20.7 million — permanent resettlement has become increasingly difficult.
The coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse. The UNHCR found that 160 coun-tries had closed their borders at some time during the pan-demic in 2020, with 99 states making no exceptions for people seeking protection.
As a result, more and more refugees, such as the ones at the makeshift camp in Medan, have found that transiting to a third country can mean dec-ades in a legal — and literal — no man’s land.
“We need a strategy that is more sustainable and produc-tive while refugees are in these potentially long transit periods,” Geutanyoe Founda-tion’s Putra said. “The most crucial issue at the moment is giving refugees and asylum seekers the right to work.”
Having suffered third-degree burns over much of his upper body, Ahmad Shah is still in a serious condition in hospital, where his friends are trying to visit him in shifts to provide support.
“Refugees are fed up with this unfortunate situation,” Najafi told Al Jazeera.
“At least the fate of a prisoner is clear and they will be re-leased after spending a cer-tain amount of time in prison. Our situation has been un-clear for a very long time.”— Agencies