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Forging Functional Friendships and Intimate Relationships

Asylum-seekers and refugees of most age groups often form intimate relationships, including asexual friendships, romantic affairs, and longer- term partnerships, with Indonesians girls, boys, men, and women. Observations and casual chats with UYAS, as well as informal interviews with a number of Indonesian social workers, fieldworkers, and representatives of immigration authorities, have confirmed that many unaccompanied young asylum-seekers have forged sexual and romantic relationships. Although many of them find friends and lovers in their own age group, it also is common to see UYAS engaging in affairs or relationships with Indonesian women who are often older than them.

Although the UYAS referred to these women mostly as pacar (girlfriend) in the abstract rather than by name, locals referred to them derogatively as tante-tante (aunties) or tante girang (i.e., literally meaning “happy aunty” but connotes “sugar mama”). In local usage tante girang goes hand in hand with the term berondong (i.e., literally “popcorn”), referring to young male lovers who are assumed to live off their older lov- ers/patrons. These relationships draw the negative attention of the local population and tend to be analyzed by scholars through a lens of victimization that renders the UYAS as powerless and exploited. Ethnographic data from this research, however, shows that friendships and intimate relationships between UYAS and Indonesian women are influenced by many complex socioeconomic and emotional factors.

During fieldwork, the author found that having pacar was no secret among the UYAS, although, when asked directly about their liaisons, most UYAS felt rather uncomfortable talking about it with the researcher. They usually made jokes to redirect questions about their relationships. Some were at ease gossiping about their friends’ relationships with local women behind the friends’ backs. If a boy had not been back to the shelter for a couple of days, the others would then suspect that he had either sailed off on a boat to Australia or had spent the nights with his pacar. It was clear that many of these pacar were older than the unaccompanied young asylum-seekers. The nature of the relationships became obvious one afternoon when an UYAS returned to the shelter in new clothes, with a new haircut, and on a motorcycle. The returning UYAS needed to do little explaining because everybody (except the researcher) seemed to know they were gifts from his pacar. Presents to a young male lover are part of the overall exchange within such relationships and are deemed necessary to maintain his interest in the older woman.

These functional relationships are formed in transit for a few reasons, with economic precariousness and the wish for a better lifestyle being among the most dominant ones, but by no means the only motivation. Next to finding financial support and enjoying extended freedom and mobility, overcoming the loneliness that arises from extended separation from family also may be a stimulus, as is sexual libertinage. Even though providing sexual or intimate services for financial or material recompense is usually understood as prostitution, labeling the intimate relationships between UYAS and older Indonesian women as such overshadows many other aspects inherent in these liaisons. Having a wealthy older woman as a girlfriend may even allow a UYAS some extraordinary luxuries. As one social worker reported: “Back in 2009, when Blackberries [for many years the favoured mobile phone in Indonesia] were still extremely rare and expensive, one of the young Afghans I was responsible for got one from his rich tante-tante. But he was very good-looking indeed.”[1]

Moreover, racist conceptions of beauty make Middle Eastern men particularly attractive in the Indonesian context because of a sense of reverence for “whiteness” and Arabs. In many parts of Asia, postcolonial hang-ups on racial hierarchies intersect with other forms of “color- ism” to suggest that “white” is superior and therefore physically attractive (Saraswati 2012). Whiteness is seen not only as physically attractive but also as representative of status. In the Indonesian media, this translates into an overrepresentation of light-skinned celebrities who look Eurasian. Because of their whiteness they are considered attractive, but they are sufficiently “Asian” in their appearance for audiences to relate to (Prabasmoro 2002; Saraswati 2010). In Indonesia, Middle Easterners often are seen as physically resembling people of mixed Eurasian heritage or can even pass as Caucasian. According to an informant from the immigration department, one Afghan UYAS was scouted by a TV station during his stay in Indonesia for a local soap opera; however, his appearances ceased once immigration officers found out because his status as an asylum-seeker prevented him from working legally in Indonesia.

The Middle Eastern origin of Islam also enhances perceptions of the attractiveness of young Afghans. Most Indonesians do not differentiate between Afghans and Arabs and use orang Arab (Arabs) for all people from Middle Eastern countries. Having Arabic connections is perceived positively as a result of the role that Mecca plays in the Indonesian imagination of Islam, particularly because the Arabicization of Islam began in Indonesia during the 1980s (Rosyad 2006; Hariyadi 2013). By placing Arabic culture on a pedestal, Indonesians reinforce the stereotype of Middle Eastern men as attractive and masculine, which in turn gives the UYAS a reputation for being more assertive.

Those who are tall and have a light complexion have attracted many suitors among older women who pay their expenses and even give them motorbikes to facilitate their presence at their sometimes nightly rendezvous. Outsiders have categorized these sorts of relationships primarily as commercial—that is, as prostitution. Although outsiders and other asylum-seekers often scorned the moral looseness of the UYAS, some at the same time have admired them for their entrepreneurial talent and have envied them for their consumer goods when they showed up with a new mobile phone, flashy clothes, or a haircut.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the women, mostly from more urban areas, are divorced or separated. Unlike village girls, with whom some of the minors were also in romantic relationships, the older women enjoy more personal freedom and are less subject to social control. Also, these women often appear to be middle class and can afford certain amenities (e.g., use of their car or motorbike) for their younger partners. New contacts with (older) women were often made in nightclubs and discos. Some UYAS have reported that the women approached them in public, for example, when they were riding minibuses. In a number of cases, the UYAS claimed that some of the women even followed them back to the shelters where they lived or waited for them outside them.[2] None of the UYAS wanted to provide any details. It was difficult to estimate how much money was at the youths’ disposal through these intimate relationships because some of them still were receiving remittances from family members back home or already were resettled in Australia.

Nevertheless, the fact that asylum-seekers and refugees in Indonesia have no legal right to work and earn money might serve as a strong motivation for UYAS to make use of certain natural assets (e.g., their good looks and young bodies). The difference between the US$60 cash allowance to UYAS and the US$120 monthly stipend paid by the IOM to adult asylum-seekers also needs to be kept in mind when considering the drivers of these relationships. At the start of their uncertain journeys, most asylum-seekers would have funds or could rely on remittances from home or from friends elsewhere, but the longer they are in transit the more likely that their funds become exhausted. Some asylum-seekers have sought employment informally (e.g., as motorbike taxi drivers) but such attempts often fail in the face of opposition from the local population. Others work clandestinely (e.g., in bakeries) even though they run the risk of detection and exploitation.

Some unaccompanied young asylum-seekers were entrepreneurial. A young man from Quetta, Pakistan, who had just turned 20 and had lived in Indonesia for more than three years, opened a small food stall using his Indonesian girlfriend’s name. Partnering with an Indonesian national is a common strategy utilized by foreign nationals to get around the legal restrictions on conducting their own business in Indonesia. The young man had scraped together enough money to buy all required hardware, rent the stall, and hire some of his fellow UYAS to do the cooking. Despite his relative youth, this man had had many business experiences as a teenager in Pakistan, where he had to support his family. Unlike many other UYAS whose relationships ended once they were resettled in Australia, this young man felt obliged to maintain the relationship and even repay some of the support he had received from his Indonesian girlfriend by sending her money and gifts from Australia.[3]

The UYAS revealed in passing a variety of motivations for entering intimate relationships with older women during more general interviews about their life in transit. Freedom from parental supervision was cited as one such motivation. One UYAS stated that, “[i]n Pakistan we were bound by our parents, here in Indonesia we are free and can try anything.”[4] Besides enjoying sexual liberty, a small number of UYAS had experimented with or regularly consumed drugs, especially ecstasy and shabu-shabu (methamphetamines). Some had developed a liking for the drugs and for alcohol. Financing their drug use, in order to “anesthetize [their] sorrow” of being stuck in transit, was given as a justification for continuing some functional relationships (Vacchiano and Jimenez 2012, 465). In the words of one UYAS who consumed drugs and alcohol, “I need to get rid of stress; I need to get a different thinking.”[5] Nevertheless, several social workers insisted that drug abuse is extremely rare among UYAS, especially those who are recognized refugees because they know they must undergo serious health checks before they can be resettled; therefore, most unaccompanied young asylum-seekers were careful not to push their luck.

Despite their youth, many asylum-seekers categorized as dependent minors under strict age-based definitions have life experiences that betray their maturity in many respects. The circumstances of their journeys to Indonesia require UYAS to be independent. To then place them under circumstances that restrict their options and do not take into account their former independence may have a negative impact on them. It may motivate some UYAS to seek functional relationships with older Indonesian women to get around the restrictions placed on their access to paid work. As their choice of women is likely to be restricted by Indonesian parents’ perceptions of UYAS as dangerous for their young daughters, they choose women who are older than them.

Some of the preceding scenarios make it difficult to categorize the intimate functional relationships strictly as cases of victimization of UYAS by older Indonesian women. To deny the UYAS any agency in forming such relationships, and to construct them instead strictly as children in need of protection from sexual abuse, does not allow for a more nuanced understanding of UYAS’ experiences in transit or of their needs—some of which are essential to enabling them to become independent adults. Among such essentials are the need for intimate relationships, for education, and for productive work.

  • [1] Interview with a case worker, February 23, 2015, Medan.
  • [2] Interview with Afghan refugee, March 31, 2014, Jakarta.
  • [3] Several interviews with Afghan refugees, February and March 2014, Melbourne.
  • [4] Interview with Afghan refugee, April 1, 2014, Jakarta.
  • [5] Interview with Afghan refugee, March 31, 2014, Jakarta.
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