‘They don’t respect us’: Backlash in Bali as Russians flee war | Russia-Ukraine war
Bali, Indonesia – Russians have poured into Bali in droves since the invasion of Ukraine.
In Indonesia’s most popular destination, the arrivals are finding refuge from the economic fallout of the war and the threat of conscription.
They are also meeting a backlash from locals angry about what they see as the growing problem of outsiders taking their jobs.
Earlier this week, Bali Governor Wayan Koster said he had asked the central government in Jakarta to end visa-on-arrival privileges for citizens of Russia and Ukraine amid growing complaints from locals.
“Why these two countries? These two are at war, so it is unsafe in their country, and they flock to Bali. Many of them come to Bali, not for leisure, but to find comfort, including for work,” Koster was quoted as saying in local media.
Minister of Tourism Sandiaga Uno said he would review the governor’s request while leaving open the possibility that the number of those “acting up and causing problems” may not be significant.
While nearly 60,000 Russians arrived in Bali last year, roughly 20,000 have been arriving each month since the Kremlin declared a partial mobilisation of military reservists in September, according to figures compiled by Bali’s international airport.
Some have taken up work on the island as hairdressers, babysitters, taxi drivers or even sex workers, often, authorities say, without a legally-required work visa.
While the number of Ukrainians has also risen, there have been only about one-tenth as many arrivals, and most public expressions of frustration and controversies involving undocumented workers have been directed towards Russians.
Earlier this month, the Balinese Provincial Government announced the formation of a task force comprised of police and officials from the ministries of labour, industry and trade to crack down on undocumented workers.
A spokesperson told local media the task force would increase monitoring of the Internet and erect billboards warning tourists against working illegally on the island. In its first week, the task force arrested six tourists, all of them Russian. All six – three sex workers, two motorbike driving instructors and a tennis coach – received deportation orders.
The previous month, authorities paraded a 27-year-old Russian national in front of local media with a black hood over his head – a practice normally reserved for suspected drug criminals – after accusing him of working as a freelance photographer while on an investment visa.
“I hope the authorities will no longer close their eyes to foreigners who are taking advantage of our hospitality,” Zee Putro, co-owner of Outdoor Activities, a tour company specialising in mountaineering, told Al Jazeera.
Putro claimed that not only his business, but the entire industry, is being threatened by the influx of Russians.
“First, they contact me asking to ‘collaborate’, which means they want to introduce new guests for commission. They want us to work for them in the field,” he said.
“But they’re in the field, too. The last time I hiked to the top of Mount Agung volcano, I saw many Russians guiding other Russians without local guides even though local guides are required by law. The Russians seem to know everything about the mountain. I think they scaled the mountain before with local guides and remembered all the routes, safety issues, wind factors, timing and dangers. It’s sad because many local guides have no work.”
Juda Purba, a surfing instructor in Bali, echoed such sentiments.
“It’s common for foreigners to work on the beach without permits. When we ask them if they’re working, they claim that they’re with a friend, so the surfing lesson is free. But we know they’re making money out of it,” Purba told Al Jazeera. “It’s unfair because they don’t pay taxes. Authorities need to take care of this.”
Some Indonesians have taken matters into their own hands.
In February, the Instagram account Moscow Chapter Bali, operated by an anonymous Indonesian national, began posting screenshots of Russians and other foreigners advertising their services online.
Although Moscow Chapter Bali claims to have started the account as a “joke” and to “promote and support” such businesses, the page has become a way for disgruntled locals to name and shame suspected undocumented workers and tag immigration authorities in the hope they are deported.
In its first month, the account received more than 100 reports of suspected illegal workers, many of them Russian, and amassed more than 36,000 followers before being suspended for allegedly violating community standards. In at least some cases, Moscow Chapter Bali has had success in getting businesses to give up promoting their wares.
After the account highlighted billboards promoting a young Russian woman’s social media coaching business, the woman, who has not been identified, switched her Instagram account status from public to private and stopped advertising her business online.
Moscow Chapter Bali, who declined to reveal their identity, citing threats online, has denied complaints by Russians in Bali that the account is racist or xenophobic.
“If you take a close look at our account, we also promote the businesses of Ukrainians, British and Australians,” they told Al Jazeera. “But unfortunately, most are Russian, and some of them have become aggressive, sending us messages saying if not for Russians, Bali won’t survive [economically] in the post-pandemic [era].”
Moscow Chapter Bali also accused Russians of being the only foreigners “who openly promote themselves.”
“They know what they’re doing is illegal and they’re being loud about it because they don’t respect us.”
Despite the apparent rise in enforcement, Bali’s immigration authorities have expressed disapproval of citizens’ efforts to track down illegal workers.
“Netizens keep tagging us in their posts, telling us to deport A and B, but we can’t just deport people without clear reasons,” Bali’s immigration chief Barron Ichsan told Al Jazeera. “We need to investigate case by case.”
Ichsan said lawful pathways for citizens to report undocumented workers already exist, including a 24-hour call centre.
“We have a call centre that is active 24 hours a day. When you make a report, you need to be responsible and provide your personal data and evidence,” he said. “Give us a clear report and we will track them down. Trust us.”