Indonesian island loses patience with Russians, Ukrainians fleeing the war

Indonesian island loses patience with Russians, Ukrainians fleeing the war

(CNN) With its balmy beaches, laid-back lifestyle and vacation vibe, the tropical paradise of Bali has a lot to offer any world-weary traveler — let alone those fleeing a war zone.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Indonesia’s most famous holiday island has once again become a magnet for thousands of Russians and Ukrainians seeking to escape the horrors of the war.

Some 58,000 Russians visited this Southeast Asian idyll in 2022 following its post-Covid reopening, and another 22,500 arrived in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making them the second largest group of visitors after Australians. More than 7,000 Ukrainians who arrived in 2022 and about 2,500 in the first month of this year are added to their number.

But for those fleeing violence — or sketchy — there’s trouble in paradise. Balinese authorities this week called for an end to Indonesia’s visa policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine, citing a series of alleged incidents involving misconduct and various examples of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally. such as hairdressers, unauthorized tour guides and taxis. the drivers. The move has been met with concern by many Ukrainians on the island, who say most of the incidents involve Russians and that they are being unfairly tarred with the same brush.

“Whenever we get reports of a foreigner behaving badly, it’s almost always Russian,” a local police officer in the city of Kuta told CNN, declining to be identified because of the sensitivity surrounding the case.

“Foreigners come to Bali, but they act like they are above the law. It has always been like that and it must finally stop,” he said.

Badly behaved tourists can be a touchy subject in Bali, where foreigners of various nationalities regularly make headlines for drunken and inappropriate behaviour, public nudity and disrespect for sacred sites.

But Balinese authorities appear ready to make an example of the Russians and Ukrainians amid growing public debate over perceptions of their behavior.

“Why these two countries? Because they are at war, so they flock here,” Bali Governor Wayan Koster said at a news conference this week.

The influx of Russians and Ukrainians to Bali comes despite Ukraine banning all men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Russia does not have an official blanket ban, but has mobilized 300,000 reservists to join the fighting, causing many young people to flee the country rather than be called up.

CNN contacted the Russian embassy in Indonesia and the Ukrainian consulate in Bali. Russian embassy officials did not immediately respond; The Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Bali said Ukrainians in the country were mostly women there for reasons of family reunification rather than tourism, and that they “did not want to break the rules and regulations”.

‘We’re all good’

While Bali was a favorite with Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have become more attractive in the wake of Putin’s harsh occupation and subsequent mobilization.

And it is far from the only refuge in Southeast Asia. The island of Phuket in southern Thailand, often hailed as among the world’s best beach destinations, has seen a sudden influx of Russian arrivals — many of whom have invested in property to ensure they can enjoy long-term stays. “Life in Russia is very different now,” a former investment banker from St. Petersburg, who bought an apartment near Phuket’s Old Town district, told CNN. He declined to reveal his identity for fear of retaliation by Russian authorities.

Renovated Sino-Portuguese architecture in Phuket Old Town, Thailand.

“No one wants to stay and live in the middle of war,” he said. “It’s stressful to think about the possibility of going back to Russia and being punished… (so) it makes sense to invest in a country that costs less than Moscow and is safer.”

In Bali, part of the pullback has been due to Indonesia’s policy of allowing citizens of more than 80 countries — including, at least for now, Russia and Ukraine — to apply for visas on arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days, but can be extended once for a total of 60 days.

This may be enough time for those planning long vacations, but those seeking a longer stay are not allowed to work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists had been deported in recent months for overstaying their visas, including a 28-year-old man from Moscow who was arrested and deported after he was found to be working as a photographer.

Others who arrived hoping to find work have returned home, risking the wrath of Moscow if they are suspected of running afoul.

Among the wave of Russians who traveled to Bali was Sergei Ovseikin, a street artist who created an anti-war mural in the middle of a rice field — a “mural” that reflected his stance on military conscription and war.

“Like many others forced to leave their native land, I came to Bali as a tourist,” Ovseikin said.

“Russia remains in a difficult political situation. I am against wars, no matter where they take place,” he said.

“Many people who disagreed with the war flew to Bali — Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “We all get along well with each other… and we understand that ordinary people did not start this war.”

“It’s beautiful… without Russian soldiers”

News of the potential change in visa rules has shocked some of the Ukrainians on the island, many of whom fled their homeland when the war broke out and have since lived frugally, leaving and re-entering every 60 days to avoid the breach of the rules.

“Bali is a good place,” said a Ukrainian named Dmytro. “It’s beautiful, the weather is great, and it’s a safe place for Ukrainians — there may be large groups of Russians, but there are no Russian soldiers.”

Ukrainians on the island were a tight-knit community that stayed away from the Russians and were surprised by the potential move, he added.

“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for our local communities and do not pose any danger to people in Bali,” said Dmytro. “Many returnees to Ukraine have questions about Bali and would also like to come.”

“It is very sad that Ukrainians are being put in the same (category) as Russians. Russians are the second largest tourist group in Bali and if you read the news, you will see how often Russians break local laws and disrespect the culture Balinese. and traditions,” he added.

“So why should Ukrainians suffer when we are not the ones causing problems in Bali?”

Ukrainian people at the opening of the consulate in Denpasar, Bali.

The Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Bali said in a statement to CNN that there were about 8,500 Ukrainian citizens on the island as of February 2023, on various temporary and permanent visas.

“Ukrainians do not come to Bali for vacation at this current moment as our country is being invaded. Ukrainians coming to Bali now are for family reunification (reasons) and are mostly women,” said spokesman Nyoman Astama.

“We reaffirm that Ukrainians in Bali do not want to violate rules and regulations,” Astama added. “It is imperative that the law be enforced and that the consequences be enforced for any violation of the law as expressed now by the people of Bali.”

However, at least for now, anyone from either country still hoping for a visa on arrival can take solace in the fact that the central government has yet to decide whether to grant the request from the Balinese authorities.

“We will discuss it in detail with other stakeholders,” Indonesian Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno told local reporters on Monday.

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